The Woman Who Smashed Codes

by Jason Fagone

Clock Icon 90 minute read

PART I
RIVERBANK

 

CHAPTER 1
Fabyan

Sixty years after she got her first job in codebreaking, when Elizebeth was an old woman, the National Security Agency sent a female representative to her apartment in Washington, D.C. The NSA woman had a tape recorder and a list of questions. Elizebeth suddenly craved a cigarette.

It had been several days since she smoked.

“Do you want a cigarette, by the way?” Elizebeth asked her guest, then realized she was all out.

“No, do you smoke?”

Elizebeth was embarrassed. “No, no!” Then she admitted that she did smoke and just didn’t want a cigarette badly enough to leave the apartment.

The woman offered to go get some.

Oh, don’t worry, Elizebeth said, the liquor store was two blocks away, it wasn’t worth the trouble.

They started. The date was November 11, 1976, nine days after the election of Jimmy Carter. The wheels of the tape recorder spun. The agency was documenting Elizebeth’s responses for its classified history files. The interviewer, an NSA linguist named Virginia Valaki, wanted to know about certain events in the development of American codebreaking and intelligence, particularly in the early days, before the NSA and the CIA existed, and the FBI was a mere embryo—these mighty empires that grew to shocking size from nothing at all, like planets from grains of dust, and not so long ago.

Elizebeth had never given an interview to the NSA. She had always been wary of the agency, for reasons the agency knew well—reasons woven into her story and into theirs. But the interviewer was kind and respectful, and Elizebeth was eighty-four years old, and what did anything matter anymore? So she got to talking.

Her recall was impressive. Only one or two questions gave her trouble. Other things she remembered perfectly but couldn’t explain because the events remained mysterious in her own mind. “Nobody would believe it unless you had been there,” she said, and laughed.

The interviewer returned again and again to the topic of Riverbank Laboratories, a bizarre institution now abandoned, a place that helped create the modern NSA but which the NSA knew little about. Elizebeth and her future husband, William Friedman, had lived there when they were young, between 1916 and 1920, when they discovered a series of techniques and patterns that changed cryptology forever. Valaki wanted to know: What in the world happened at Riverbank? And how did two know-nothings in their early twenties turn into the best codebreakers the United States had ever seen—seemingly overnight? “I’d be grateful for any information you can give on Riverbank,” Valaki said. “You see, I don’t know enough to . . . even to ask the first questions.”

Over the course of several hours, Valaki kept pushing Elizebeth to peel back the layers of various Riverbank discoveries, to describe how the solution to puzzle A became new method B that pointed to the dawn of C, but Elizebeth lingered instead on descriptions of people and places. History had smoothed out all the weird edges. She figured she was the last person alive who might remember the crags of things, the moments of uncertainty and luck, the wild accelerations. The analyst asked about one particular scientific leap six different times; the old woman gave six slightly different answers, some meandering, some brief, including one that is written in the NSA transcript as “Hah! ((Laughs.))”

Toward the end of the conversation, Elizebeth asked if she had thought to tell the story of how she ended up at Riverbank in the first place, working for the man who built it, a man named George Fabyan. It was a story she had told a few times over the years, a memory outlined in black. Valaki said no, Elizebeth hadn’t already told this part. “Well, I better give you that,” Elizebeth said. “It’s not only very, very amusing, but it’s actually true syllable by syllable.”

“Alright.”

“You want me to do that now?” Elizebeth said.

“Absolutely.”

The first time she saw George Fabyan, in June 1916, he was climbing out of a chauffeured limousine in front of the Newberry Library in Chicago, a tall stout man being expelled from the vehicle like a clog from a pipe.

She had gone to the library alone to look at a rare volume of Shakespeare and to ask if the librarians knew of any jobs in the literature or research fields. Within minutes, to her confusion and mystification, a limousine was pulling up to the curb.

Elizebeth Smith was twenty-three years old, five foot three, and between 110 and 120 pounds, with short dark-brown curls and hazel eyes. Her clothes gave her away as a country girl on an adventure. She wore a crisp gray dress of ribbed fabric, its white cuffs and high pilgrim collar imparting a severe appearance to her small body as she stood in the lobby and watched Fabyan through the library’s glass front doors.

He entered and stormed toward her, a huge man with blazing blue eyes. His clothes were more haggard than Elizebeth would have expected for a person of his apparent wealth. He wore an enormous and slightly tattered cutaway coat and striped trousers. His mustache and beard were iron gray, and his uncombed hair was the same shade. His breath shook the hairs of his beard.

Fabyan approached. The height differential between them was more than a foot; he dwarfed her across every dimension. With an abrupt motion he stepped closer, frowning. She had the impression of a windmill or a pyramid being tipped down over her.

“Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?” Fabyan said.

Elizebeth didn’t understand any part of this sentence. She didn’t know what he meant by spending the night or what Riverbank was. She struggled for a response, finally stammering a few words. “Oh, sir, I don’t have anything with me to spend the night away from my room.”

“That’s all right,” Fabyan said. “We’ll furnish you anything you want. Anything you need, we have it. Come on!”

Then, to her surprise, Fabyan grabbed Elizebeth under one elbow, practically lifting her by the arm. Her body stiffened in response. He marched her out of the library and swept her into the waiting limousine.

People often guessed that she was meek because she was small. She hated this, the assumption that she was harmless, ordinary. She despised her own last name for the same reason; it seemed to give people an excuse to forget her.

“The odious name of Smith,” she called it once, in a diary she began keeping at age twenty. “It seems that when I am introduced to a stranger by this most meaningless of phrases, plain ‘Miss Smith,’ that I shall be forever in that stranger’s estimation, eliminated from any category even approaching anything interesting or at all uncommon.” There was nothing to be done: changing her name would cause horrendous insult to blood relations, and complaining provided no satisfaction, because whenever she did, people asked why she didn’t just change her name, a response so “inanely disgusting” that it made her feel violent. “I feel like snipping out the tongues of any and all who indulge in such common, senseless, and inane pleasantries.”

Her family members had never shared this fear of being ordinary. They were midwestern people of modest means, Quakers from Huntington, Indiana, a rural town known for its rock quarries. Her father, John Marion Smith, traced his lineage to an English Quaker who sailed to America in 1682 on the same boat as William Penn. In Huntington he worked as a farmer and served in local government as a Republican. (“My Indiana family,” Elizebeth later wrote, “were hide-bound Republicans who had never under any instances voted for any other ticket.”) Her mother, Sopha Strock, a housewife, delivered ten children to John, the first when she was only seventeen. One died in infancy; nine survived. Elizebeth was the last of the nine, and by the time she was born, on August 26, 1892, most of her brothers and sisters had already grown up and scattered. She got along with only two or three, particularly a sister named Edna, two years her elder, a practical girl who later married a dentist and moved to Detroit.

Sopha had decided to spell “Elizebeth” in a nonstandard way, with ze instead of the usual za, perhaps sensing that her ninth child named Smith would want something to set her apart in the world. But Elizebeth didn’t need the hitch in her first name to know she was different. Prone to recurring fits of nausea that began in adolescence and plagued her for years, she had trouble sitting still and keeping her tongue. She clashed with her father, a pragmatic, stubborn man who ordered his children around and believed women should marry young. She questioned her parents’ faith. John and Sopha, though not devout, were part of a Quaker community and believed what Quakers do: that war is wrong, silence concentrates goodness, and direct contact with God is possible. Elizebeth’s God was more diffuse: “We call a lot of things luck that are but the outcome of our own bad endeavor,” she wrote in the diary, “but there is undoubtedly something outside ourselves that sometimes wins for us, or loses, irrespective of ourselves. What is it? Is it God?”

Her father didn’t want Elizebeth to go to college. She defied him and sent applications to multiple schools, vowing to pay her own tuition; a friend later recalled that she was full of “determination and energy to get a college education with no help or encouragement from her father.” (John Smith did end up loaning her some money—at 4 percent interest.) After being rejected from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, a top Quaker school, she settled on Wooster College in Ohio, studying Greek and English literature there between 1911 and 1913. Then her mother fell ill with cancer and Elizebeth transferred to another small liberal arts school, Hillsdale College in Michigan, to be closer to home. At both schools she earned tuition money as a seamstress for hire. Her dorm rooms were always cluttered with dresses in progress and stray ribbons of chiffon.

College took Elizebeth’s innate tendency to doubt and gave it a structure, a justification. At Wooster and Hillsdale she discovered poetry and philosophy, two methods of exploring the unknown, two scalpels for carving up fact and thought. She studied the works of Shakespeare and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, carrying books of their poems and plays around campus, annotating and underlining the pages until the leaves separated from the bindings. A course on philosophy introduced her to a new hero, the Renaissance scholar Erasmus, who “believed in one aristocracy—the aristocracy of intellect,” she wrote in a paper. “He had one faith—faith in the power of thought, in the supremacy of ideas.” Elizebeth, a smart person from a working-class family, found this concept liberating: the measure of a person was her ideas, not her wealth or her command of religious texts. She wrote a poem about this epiphany:

I sit stunned, nerveless, amid the ruins

Of my fallen idols. The iconoclast Philosophy

Has shattered for me

My God . . .

But through the confusing ruins, Faith, still hoping,

Somehow raises her hands and bids me—

Yearn on! Finally

Through the mazes of error and doubt and mistrust

You will come, weary heart

To the final conclusion upon which you will build anew.

You will find triumphant

The Working Hypothesis,

The Solid Rock.

In addition to the well-worn volumes of Shakespeare and Tennyson, she lugged her own diary from place to place, a book with a soft black binding that said “Record” on the cover in silver script. The round-cornered pages were lined. She wrote in wet black ink with a quill pen, in a slanted cursive hand that was not too beautiful, about the importance of choosing the right words for things, even if those words offended people. She didn’t like it when she heard a friend say that a person who had died had “passed away” or that a staggering drunk at a party was “a bit indisposed.” It was more important to be honest. “We glide over the offensiveness of names and calm down our consciences by eulogistic mellifluous terms, until our very moral senses are dulled,” she wrote. “Let things be shown, let them come forth in their real colors, and humanity will not be so prone to a sin which is glossed over by a dainty public!”

Sometimes Elizebeth had trouble channeling these energies and frustrations into cogent work. Her professors found her intensely bright, yet unfocused and argumentative. More than one told her, she said, that “I have marvelous abilities, yet do not use them.” A philosophy professor wrote on the back of her Erasmus paper, “Very suggestive, with lots of good ideas and phrases. Also novel. But the style is choppy and the ideas are not in proper sequence.” Next to these words Elizebeth scribbled a defiant note, dismissing the criticism on the grounds that she had recently won second place in a state oratorical contest.

She found herself attracted to male artists. Attending a choral concert one night, “my musical heart was carried completely away by a baritone,” she wrote. “He loved the very act of singing—it could be seen in his eyes, in his mouth, in his very hands, as they irrepressibly moved in half-gestures. It made me want to be able to sing well myself, so badly that—well, I just couldn’t sit still with the desire of it.” At Hillsdale she dated a poet named Harold Van Kirk, called Van by his friends, handsome and athletic. He typed French sonnets for her and later joined the army and moved to New York. Van’s roommate, Carleton Brooks Miller, wooed her when the relationship with Van fell apart, urging Elizebeth to read James Branch Cabell’s erotic science fiction novel Jurgen because “it reveals the naked man-soul as it is.” Carleton joined the army, too, then became the minister of a Congregational church near the college, writing to Elizebeth a few years later that he was still looking for a mate.

When graduation came around in the spring of 1915, Elizebeth still felt like “a quivering, keenly alive, restless, mental question mark.” She had no sense of where to go or what she wanted to do with her life. That fall she accepted a position as the substitute principal of a county high school twenty miles west of her childhood home. The landscape of small-town Indiana was depressingly familiar to Elizebeth, and while she enjoyed parts of her job—she taught classes in addition to running the school—she also felt trapped. For an educated American woman in 1915, teaching at the high school level or below was what you did. Almost 90 percent of professors at public universities were male; only 939 women in the country received master’s degrees in 1915, and 62 women earned Ph.D.s. Elizebeth had arrived at the last stop on a dreary train. There was no path from teaching that led anywhere else she might want to go. A woman taught, had kids, retired, died.

All her life, Elizebeth assumed that her restlessness was a defect that adulthood would somehow remove. She had called it “this little, elusive, buried splinter” and hoped for it to be “pricked from my mind.” But she was learning to see the splinter as a permanent piece of her, impossible to remove. “I am never quite so gleeful as when I am doing something labeled as an ‘ought not.’ Why is it? Am I abnormal? Why should something with a risk in it give me an exuberant feeling inside me? I don’t know what it is unless it is that characteristic which makes so many people remark that I should have been born a man.”

Wanting something more, and ready to take a risk, Elizebeth quit her job at the Indiana high school in the spring of 1916 and moved back in with her parents to think about what was next. She soon remembered how unpleasant it was to live with her father. She reached her limit and packed a suitcase in early June. Nervous, but forcing herself to be brave, she boarded a train for Chicago, hoping to find a new job there, or at least a new direction.

That month, the war in Europe—the First World War, then called the “Great War”—was two years old. America had not yet joined the battle. Woodrow Wilson was finishing his first term as president and campaigning for reelection in November on a platform of peace. More than a thousand Republican delegates had just kicked off their national convention to nominate a challenger to Wilson. They were gathered in the same city that now lured Elizebeth: Chicago, the young capital of the Midwest, an upstart empire of stockyards and skyscrapers.

The scale of the city jangled her. Pedestrians brushed past each other on sidewalks that cut mazes through the downtown office buildings, banks, apartments, hotels. It rained most every day, a cold, miserable rain, sheets of fat, icy drops that saturated the wool coats of the political delegates and swamped the grass at the baseball parks, canceling Cubs and White Sox games. Elizebeth stayed in the apartment of a friend on the South Side and ventured out each morning in search of work, visiting job agencies and presenting her qualifications. She told the receptionists she would like to work in literature or research. She pictured herself at a desk in a room of desks, taking notes with a sharp pencil. Not clerical work but something that required the brain. The people at the job agencies said they were sorry, but they didn’t have anything like that.

She had no other cards to play. No money or connections, no means of bending Chicago to her will. She felt small and anonymous. After a week she decided to return home.

Before boarding the train, though, she wanted to make one more stop in the city, at a place she had heard about, the Newberry Library, which owned a rare copy of the First Folio of William Shakespeare, a book whose backstory had intrigued her when she learned it in college. The Bard’s plays were never collected and printed in one place during his lifetime, because the culture in which he worked, Queen Elizabeth I’s England, revered the spoken word above the written. It wasn’t until 1623, seven years after his death, when a group of admirers gathered thirty-six of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies in a single hefty volume that came to be known as the First Folio. Simply publishing the book was a radical act, a statement that the phrases of a playwright deserved to be documented with the same care as the Gospels. A team of London artisans produced about a thousand copies, each typeset and bound by hand. Five men memorized portions of the plays to help them set type faster, stacking metal letters one by one into words and sentences.

Over the centuries, most of the copies were lost or destroyed. The Newberry had one of the few on display in America. So, on what she thought would be her final day in Chicago, Elizebeth made her way to the library.

The library was an odd institution, created by a dead man’s will and a quirk of fate. A rich merchant named Walter Newberry died on a steamship in 1868. The crew preserved his body for the remainder of the voyage in an empty rum cask before returning it to his beloved city, where lawyers discovered that Newberry had left behind almost $2,150,000 for the construction of a public library.

According to his will, the library had to be free to use, and it had to be located in North Chicago. These were the only conditions. The library didn’t even have books to start with, because three years after Newberry’s death, his own hoard of rare volumes was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The slate of the library was blank. Now the library’s trustees wrote their status anxieties upon it. These were wealthy Chicago businessmen who felt they lived in one of the finest cities in the world and were painfully aware that the world did not agree. For all of Chicago’s sudden material success, its skyscrapers and factories and department store empires and slaughterhouses, it lacked the institutions of art and music and science that elevated New York and Boston and Paris in traditional measures of civic greatness but omitted Chicago and made its large men feel small.

They wished to prove that they were men of culture and refinement, and they were willing to spend whatever it took.

This was the same insecurity that drove the fathers of Chicago to raise the dreamlike White City, the temporary pavilions of the Chicago World’s Fair that soared along the southern edge of the lake in the summer of 1893. The White City exhibited the future in prototype, pieces of an unfinished puzzle. On August 26, 1893, a day of demonstrations at the Palace of Mechanical Arts, a building twice as large as the U.S. Capitol, the palace rumbled and whirred with machines that turned raw sugar into candy, made sausages and horseshoe nails and bricks, and sewed ten thousand button holes per hour. All day long one hundred thousand people wandered the sprawling aisles, eardrums split by machine roar, drinking lemonade that spurted from a fountain. An entire newspaper was printed in exactly sixty-three minutes starting with raw planks of wood that were pulped as people watched. “Everywhere was a demonstration of the almost irresistible power of mind when matter is set to do its bidding,” the Tribune reported. The world’s tallest man, Colonel H. C. Thurston of Texas, eight foot one and a half in boots, mingled with the throngs, and in the afternoon fifty thousand gathered outdoors to watch a fat man dive for a bologna sausage that dangled from a pole above the lake’s lagoon.

This was the day Elizebeth turned one year old in Indiana. And as crowds of Americans roamed the White City in awe, builders completed construction of the Newberry Library, ten miles north of the noisy fairgrounds, and the first patrons entered the library in reverent silence.

Unlike the White City, a spectacle for the masses, the library was designed as “a select affair” for “the better and cleaner classes,” the Chicago Times wrote with approval when the Newberry first opened. It was an imposing five-story building of tan granite blocks. All visitors had to fill out a slip stating the purpose of their research and they were turned away if they could not specify a topic. The books, available for reference only, were shelved in reading rooms modeled after the home libraries of wealthy gentlemen, cozy and intimate spaces containing the rarest and most sophisticated books that vulgar Chicago money could buy. During the library’s first decades, the masters of the Newberry acquired books with the single-mindedness of hog merchants. They bought hundreds of incunabula, printed volumes from before 1501, written by monks. They bought fragile, faded books written by hand on unusual materials, on leather and wood and parchment and vellum. They bought mysterious books of disputed patrimony, books whose past lives they did not know and could not explain. One book on the Newberry’s shelves featured Arabic script and a supple, leathery binding. Inside were two inscriptions. The first said that the book had been found “in the palace of the king of Delhi, September 21st, 1857,” seven days after a mutiny. The second inscription said, “Bound in human skin.”

In one especially significant transaction, the library acquired six thousand books from a Cincinnati hardware merchandiser, a haul that included a Fourth Folio of Shakespeare from 1685, a Second Folio from 1632, and most exceptional of all, the First Folio of 1623, the original printing of Shakespeare’s plays.

This is the book that Elizebeth Smith was determined to see in June 1916, when she was twenty-three.

Opening the glass front door of the Newberry, she walked through a small vestibule into a magnificent Romanesque lobby. A librarian at a desk stopped her and sized her up. Normally Elizebeth would have been required to fill out the form with her research topic, but she had gotten lucky. The year 1916 happened to be the three hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and libraries around the country, including the Newberry, were mounting exhibitions in celebration.

Elizebeth said she was here to see the First Folio. The librarian said it was part of the exhibition and pointed to a room on the first floor, to the left. Elizebeth approached. The Folio was on display under glass.

The book was large and dense, about 13 inches tall and 8 inches wide, and almost dictionary-thick, running to nine hundred pages. The binding was red and made of highly polished goatskin, with a large grain. The pages had gilded edges. It was opened to a pair of pages in the front, the light gray paper tinged with yellow due to age. She saw an engraving of a man in an Elizabethan-era collar and jacket, his head mostly bald except for two neatly combed hanks of hair that ended at his ears. The text said:

MR. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARES

COMEDIES,

HISTORIES, &

TRAGEDIES.

Publifhed according to the True Originall Copies.

LONDON

Printed by Ifaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount. 1623.

Elizebeth later wrote that seeing the Folio gave her the same feeling “that an archaeologist has, when he suddenly realizes that he has discovered a tomb of a great pharaoh.”

One of the librarians, a young woman, must have noticed the expression of entrancement on her face, because now she walked over to Elizebeth and asked if she was interested in Shakespeare. They got to talking and realized they had a lot in common. The librarian had grown up in Richmond, Indiana, not far from Elizebeth’s hometown, and they were both from Quaker families.

Elizebeth felt comfortable enough to mention that she was looking for a job in literature or research. “I would like something unusual,” she said.

The librarian thought for a second. Yes, that reminded her of Mr. Fabyan. She pronounced the name with a long a, like “Faybe-yin.”

Elizebeth had never heard the name, so the librarian explained. George Fabyan was a wealthy Chicago businessman who often visited the library to examine the First Folio. He said he believed the book contained secret messages written in cipher, and he had made it known that he wished to hire an assistant, preferably a “young, personable, attractive college graduate who knew English literature,” to further this research. Would Elizebeth be interested in a position like that?

Elizebeth was too startled to know what to say.

“Shall I call him up?” the librarian asked.

“Well, yes, I wish you would, please,” Elizebeth said.

The librarian went off for a few moments, then signaled to Elizebeth. Mr. Fabyan would be right over, she said.

Elizebeth thought: What?

Yes, Mr. Fabyan happened to be in Chicago today. He would be here any minute.

Sure enough, Fabyan soon arrived in his limousine. He burst into the library, asked Elizebeth the question that so bewildered and stunned her—“Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?”—and led her by the arm to the waiting vehicle.

“This is Bert,” he growled, nodding at his chauffeur, Bert Williams. Fabyan climbed in with Elizebeth in the back.

From the Newberry, the chauffeur drove them south and west for twenty blocks until they arrived at the soaring Roman columns of the Chicago & North Western Terminal, one of the busiest of the city’s five railway stations. Fabyan hurried her out of the limo, up the steps, between the columns, and into the nine-hundred-foot-long train shed, a vast, darkened shaft of platforms and train cars and people rushing every which way. She asked Fabyan if she could send a message to her family at the telegraph office in the station, letting them know her whereabouts. Fabyan said no, that wasn’t necessary, and there wasn’t any time.

She followed him toward a Union Pacific car. Fabyan and Elizebeth climbed aboard at the back end. Fabyan walked her all the way to the front of the car and told her to sit in the frontmost seat, by the window. Then he went galumphing back through the car saying hello to the other passengers, seeming to recognize several, gossiping with them about this and that, and joking with the conductor in a matey voice while Elizebeth waited in her window seat and the train did not move. It sat there, and sat there, and sat there, and a bubble of panic suddenly popped in her stomach, the hot acid rising to her throat.

“Where am I?” she thought to herself. “Who am I? Where am I going? I may be on the other side of the world tonight.” She wondered if she should get up, right that second, while Fabyan had his back turned, and run.

But she remained still until Fabyan had finished talking to the other passengers and came tramping back to the front of the car. He packed his big body into the seat opposite hers. She smiled at him, trying to be proper and polite, like she had been taught, and not wanting to offend a millionaire; she had grown up in modest enough circumstances to be wary of the rich and their power.

Then Fabyan did something she would remember all her life. He rocked forward, jabbed his reddened face to within inches of hers, fixed his blue eyes on her hazel ones, and thundered, loud enough for everyone in the car to hear, “Well, WHAT IN HELL DO YOU KNOW?”

Elizebeth leaned away from Fabyan and his question. It inflamed something stubborn in her. She turned her head away in a gesture of disrespect, resting her cheek against the window to create some distance. The pilgrim collar of her dress touched the cold glass. From that position she shot Fabyan a sphinxy, sidelong gaze.

“That remains, sir, for you to find out,” she said.

It occurred to her afterward that this was the most immoral remark she had ever made in her life. Fabyan loved it. He leaned way back, making the seat squeak with his weight, and unloosed a great roaring laugh that slammed through the train car and caromed off the thin steel walls.

Then his facial muscles slackened into an expression clearly meant to convey deep thought, and as the train lurched forward, finally leaving the station, he began to talk of Shakespeare, the reason he had sought her out.

Hamlet, he said. Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, the sonnets—the most famous written works in the world. Countless millions had read them, quoted them, memorized them, performed them, used pieces of them in everyday speech without even knowing. Yet all those readers had missed something. A hidden order, a secret of indescribable magnitude.

Out the train window, the grid of Chicago gave way to the silos and pale yellow vistas of the prairie. Each second she was getting pulled more deeply into the scheme of this stranger, destination unknown.

The First Folio, he continued. The Shakespeare book at the Newberry Library. It wasn’t what it seemed. The words on the page, which appeared to be describing the wounds and treacheries of lovers and kings, in fact told a completely different story, a secret story, using an ingenious system of secret writing. The messages revealed that the author of the plays was not William Shakespeare. The true author, and the man who had concealed the messages, was in fact Francis Bacon, the pioneering scientist and philosopher-king of Elizabethan England.

Elizebeth looked at the rich man. She could tell he believed what he was saying.

Fabyan went on. He said that a brilliant female scholar who worked for him, Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, had already succeeded in unweaving the plays and isolating Bacon’s hidden threads. But for reasons that would become clear, Mrs. Gallup needed an assistant with youthful energy and sharp eyes. This is why Fabyan wanted Elizebeth to join him and Mrs. Gallup at Riverbank—his private home, his 350-acre estate, but also so much more.

Genius scientists lived there, on his payroll, working in laboratories unlike any on earth. Celebrities made pilgrimages to get a glimpse of projects under way. Teddy Roosevelt, his personal friend. P. T. Barnum. Famous actresses. Riverbank was a place of wonders. She would see.

After they’d been riding west for ninety minutes or so, traveling thirty-five miles across the plain, the train began to slow, hissing as it came to a full stop. Fabyan opened the door and he and Elizebeth walked down the length of a platform and emerged into a handsome waiting room of dark enameled brick with terra-cotta flourishes. They continued out the front door, into the main street of Geneva, Illinois, a village of two thousand. Originally settled by a Pennsylvania whiskey distiller, Geneva had swelled with foreign immigrants in recent years, Irish and Italians and Swedes leaving crowded Chicago for the open spaces of the prairie. Whiskey still accounted for a good portion of Geneva’s commerce, grain from the fields mixing with the sweet water of the Fox River, which bisected the town north to south.

To Elizebeth’s amazement, a limousine was waiting for her at Geneva Station—not the one she’d ridden in an hour ago in Chicago but a second limousine with a second chauffeur. She climbed in with Fabyan and was carried south along a local road known as the Lincoln Highway for a bit more than a mile, until a long, high stone wall appeared to the left. Then a gate.

The limousine slowed. It pulled off the highway, to the right, across from the wall and the gate, and came to a stop in front of a two-story farmhouse with a wide front porch.

The Lodge, Fabyan announced. Elizebeth would be staying here tonight.

CHAPTER 2
Unbelievable, Yet It Was There

A naked woman was living in a cottage at Riverbank. This was the story going around town in Geneva. The woman was said to be young, in her late teens or early twenties. Above the entrance of the cottage hung a sign that read Fabyan.

The story mutated as it passed from teller to teller. The cottage at Riverbank was stocked with attractive women, kept by Fabyan to satisfy his lust. They had been seen disrobing. Five women, ten.

Rumors about Fabyan and his strange laboratory were always spreading through the small farm towns surrounding the estate. The grounds were private and only open to the public at particular times. A stone wall protected part of the 350 acres, patrolled by Fabyan’s guards, and at night the lighthouse on the island in the river broadcast a continual warning to intruders in code: two white flashes followed by three red ones, signifying “23-skidoo,” meaning “keep out.” Sometimes, on Sundays, he opened Riverbank to local residents as a gesture of goodwill, a benevolent king allowing his people to roam the castle grounds. The electric trolley operated by the Aurora-Elgin and Fox River Electric Company, which usually ran past the estate without stopping, was permitted to stop by the river. People tumbled out and wandered in awe through an elaborate Japanese Garden. And then Monday came, and the trolley did not stop at Riverbank anymore, and people once again had to guess from afar what might be happening there.

They heard loud noises from the direction of the estate, things that sounded like bombs exploding. They saw what looked like warplanes buzzing around the buildings and making an incredible racket. The press often called him “Colonel Fabyan” or simply “The Colonel.” It seemed obvious that Fabyan was performing military research, but the townspeople did not know exactly what. They gleaned clues from newspapers and magazines. Fabyan was always inviting journalists and professors to tour the laboratories, under controlled conditions, and their reports spoke of Riverbank as a wonderland, a place almost beyond earthly reckoning. Visitors called Riverbank, variously:

A Garden of Eden on Fox River

Fabyan’s colony

a wonder-working laboratory near Chicago

one of the strangest and, at the same time, most beautiful country estates in America

As for George Fabyan himself, visitors described him as:

one of the greatest cipher experts of the world

one who has achieved triple success in three distinct fields of activity, those of business, letters, and science

the man of a thousand interests

the lord and master

Chicago inventor

multi-millionaire country gentleman

the seer of Riverbank

the caliph on a grand scale

Guests of Riverbank went away telling two main types of stories. On the one hand, the visitors spread bizarre rumors and anecdotes of Fabyan’s personal behaviors, portraying him as a mad king: “Credible persons,” one newspaper reported, “say that a pair of sprightly, highly groomed zebras dash down with a station wagon to the Geneva station . . . to meet him mornings and evenings.” These tales of bacchanalia were mingled with incredible stories of scientific experimentation at the laboratories, hints of anatomical investigations, and tales of secret cipher messages divined from old books.

Before he built the laboratories, Fabyan had often appeared in the Chicago newspapers in connection with more conventional tycoon activities: donations to political figures, board meetings of the stock exchange. People thought they knew his story. The black sheep of a prosperous New England family, he had dropped out of boarding school at age sixteen after repeated clashes with his father. He ran away from home and wandered the West for several years in the 1880s, making a living by selling lumber and railroad ties. Later, moving to Chicago, he reconciled with his father, and when the old man died, George inherited his $3 million fortune—equal to almost $100 million today—along with the reins of the family business, Bliss Fabyan & Company, one of the largest fabric companies in America. George used his gift for salesmanship to grow the company. After a Bliss Fabyan textile mill in Maine started making a type of striped seersucker cloth, he christened it “Ripplette,” a wonder fabric that required no ironing and resisted stain, undyed white bedspreads staying white after repeated washings, “white and clear as the driven snow . . . the name ‘Ripplette’ on a bedspread is the only sure indication of Ripplette quality. . . .”

Fabyan never claimed to be an altruist. “I ain’t no angel,” he said once, “and there are no angels in the New England cotton textile business, and if there are, they will all be broke.” But in one part of his life he did strive toward some kind of greater good, and he wanted people to know it. In his free time, for his own amusement, he had made himself into a man of science. The steel magnates of Pittsburgh collected paintings, old and contemporary masterpieces. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst would soon build a 165-room castle in California full of marble statues. Fabyan was thinking bigger. “Some rich men go in for art collections, gay times on the Riviera, or extravagant living, but they all get satiated,” he said. “That’s why I stick to scientific experiments, spending money to discover valuable things that universities can’t afford. You can never get sick of too much knowledge.”

The atom had not been split in 1916. The structure of DNA was undescribed. There were no antibiotics. Aspirin, vitamins, blood types, and the medical uses of X-rays had all been discovered in the last twenty-one years. Einstein’s theory of general relativity was only a year old. According to Einstein, space and time were one and the same, related by the universal force of gravity, and people did not know what to make of it. They came to Riverbank knowing that major scientific discoveries had emerged from the private laboratories of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, so they were primed to believe that a new age of wonders was just over the next hill. And Fabyan gave them a peek. He paraded them from lab to lab, marvel to marvel, a former teen runaway and dropout showing off his Eden of science.

There seemed to be experiments happening everywhere, even inside his own house, known as the Villa. A man from the Chicago Herald was shocked to notice a swarm of bees flying through the Villa’s open window. Fabyan laughed. “Those bees are just going into the music room to deposit their honey,” he said. “You see I didn’t trust that particular bunch of bees, so I had their hive placed inside the [Villa] and had it glassed in so we could watch them and see that they didn’t cheat. . . . It’s made honest bees out of them—this constant supervision.”

A correspondent from the Chicago Daily News visited on a clear spring morning. Fabyan asked him, “Do you ever think? No, I don’t think you do. Ninety-nine percent of the people don’t, so why should you? I can make you think. We’re all thinkers out here. Yes-siree, every one of the 150 souls in the Riverbank community.” Fabyan, wearing a bowler hat, a lavender scarf, a tailored vest, and a frock coat with his French Légion d’Honneur rosette pinned to the lapel, added that he himself was “just a worker” like all the others, that there were no bosses at Riverbank, no time clocks, no iron regulations. Then he removed a gold-tipped cigarette from a cigarette case, snapped it in two, and lowered the halves toward a nearby monkey enclosure. The monkeys took the cigarette halves from Fabyan’s outstretched hand, peeled off the paper, and jammed the tobacco into their mouths.

“Yes,” Fabyan continued, “a community of thinkers.” He took the reporter to the farm and explained how his scientists were taking cows and pigs and sheep and freezing them with rocks of ice and then slicing them thin as salami, to study their anatomy; he showed off the statues of the duck and the Egyptian thrones next to the Villa and pointed out with glee that they weren’t made of marble or stone but of concrete, which lasts longer than stone and can be carved like stone; he pointed to the Dutch windmill and bragged that it was fully functional, that he used the mill to grind flour and bake fresh loaves of bread for the workers. He invited the reporter into the Acoustics Laboratory, built around an ultraquiet test chamber where the buzz of a stray mosquito seemed as loud as an air siren, and a pencil writing on paper sounded like a dozen people coughing. Fabyan said that experiments here would someday make cities more livable by eliminating the “racket ogre” of machines and crowds.

“Look through this telescope thing,” boomed Colonel Fabyan proudly. He struck a tuning fork. The visitor squinted, and saw a flickering light, like a gas flame in a wind. “That’s the sound made by this tuning fork! Sure, you’re seeing it!”

And all through the tour, Fabyan kept circling back to the primary mission of the laboratories, the glimmering idea at the bottom of it all: immortality. Extending human life. Each person could live to be one hundred or more, he said. The thinkers of Riverbank had sequestered themselves in this lush, remote location to learn how not to die.

“Over there in that hothouse, they’re trying genetics on nasturtiums, orchids, roses, and tulips,” Fabyan told the Chicago correspondent, jabbing a finger in the direction of Riverbank’s greenhouse. “What for? Why, look at the average human being. A mighty pitiful contraption of flesh and bones. If we of the Riverbank community can improve the human race by experimenting first with flowers and plants—say, won’t that be a wonderful thing?”

Some experiments veered into ethically dubious territory. A journalist visiting from Philadelphia stopped and asked for directions from “a pretty girl, clad in blue overalls,” with a “slim young figure—one of Colonel Fabyan’s colony crowned with a head of bobbed blonde hair.” Fabyan told the reporter that he had enrolled a number of young women in a series of studies to correct their defective posture. He recruited these human subjects from a boarding school adjacent to the Riverbank property, the Illinois State Training School for Delinquent and Dependent Girls at Geneva, really a low-security juvenile prison in the countryside, a place where judges across Illinois sent “wayward girls” deemed mentally deficient or sexually promiscuous. The founder of the Training School ordered the girls beaten with rawhide whips and thought society should force them to be sterilized: “When they begin to grow and attain some size the blood that runs in their veins will begin to tell and the incorrigible girl is the result.” The school housed a rotating population of five hundred women ages ten to eighteen, and some lived in a cottage built with a donation from George and Nelle Fabyan. This was the cottage that townspeople gossiped about. The donation explained why the Fabyan sign hung above the door, and the posture experiments explained the rumor of nudity; the girls were required to undress for physical examinations. “The results of our experiments on the girls at Geneva have been marvelous,” George Fabyan boasted. “Their so-called ‘debutante slouch’ has disappeared. They are learning to stand erect and not like anthropoid apes just learning to walk. I am trying to improve the human race, to discover what’s wrong with the female figure. What will the next generation be like if all the women have hollow chests?”

The Philadelphia reporter also revealed that “in his effort to impress on the young women the terrors of crooked spines,” Fabyan maintained a laboratory at Riverbank that he called “The Chamber of Horrors,” containing actual human skeletons with grotesquely deformed spines, procured through methods that Fabyan never explained. Multiple Riverbank employees later told an Illinois historian that Fabyan “collected from hospitals and cemeteries numerous unclaimed cadavers that his scientists would radiate, cut, probe, and dissect, and then bury the remains in secret graves around the estate.” At night in the laboratories “the beams would creak and the chairs would seem to move,” and several staffers “recalled looking out the windows into the dark yard and seeing running girls with flowing white trains.” Opinions about these visions differed: some staffers thought they were seeing “wayward girls” from the Training School escaping momentarily, and others believed in ghosts.

One summer a science journalist visited. Austin Lescarboura was a professional debunker, a man who had once partnered with Houdini to prove that fortune-tellers were liars and frauds. George Fabyan led Lescarboura into a darkened room in one of the laboratories. “The staff in charge moved about like so many Egyptian priests of old guarding the darkest secrets,” Lescarboura later reported in Scientific American.

To deepen the mystery still further, a pretty girl was brought in. We were ushered into a small booth with dull black curtains for walls. It reminded us strongly of our psychic experiments back in New York, when we exposed one of the leading mediums after three sittings. At the command of the Colonel, the demonstration got under way. In a few minutes, we were astounded by what we were witnessing. It seemed unbelievable, yet it was there, in plain black and white. We had been brought face to face with certain facts regarding the human mechanism which we would hardly dared to have surmised in the absence of such a convincing demonstration. We were shown how—well, at this point we can go no further. Colonel Fabyan made us promise that nothing would be said about the nature of this investigation until some later date, when the experiments have progressed further.

What he was seeing was a woman standing behind an X-ray screen, the structure of her bones illuminated by the penetrating energies of $750,000 worth of radium. X-rays had been discovered in 1895, so they were hardly new technology by the time Lescarboura arrived at Riverbank, but the aura of mystique at Riverbank was so thick, the range of scientific experiments so wide, that even a trained skeptic like Lescarboura could not necessarily distinguish between the real and the fantastic. “Every so often the world reaches a point bordering on stagnation, because everything seems to be fully developed,” he wrote. “But the scientist, pegging away at the secrets of nature, sooner or later breaks down existing barriers, opens the way to a new field, and we are soon confronted with brand new opportunities for exploration.”

Twenty-three-year-old Elizebeth Smith climbed the stairs of the Lodge to the porch, opened the front door, and found herself in a warm, spacious drawing room. The walls were lined with double-paned casement windows that looked out across a grassy field on one side and back toward the road. There were people milling about.

In a brusque, hurried way, Fabyan introduced Elizebeth to a pair of magnificently dressed women, then disappeared, leaving her with these strangers.

The aristocratic appearance of the women was so incongruous that Elizebeth looked them over a few times to be sure they were real. They were sisters. The first, an older woman, wore a dark dress and a necklace that glittered with jewels. Her gray hair was tied in a bun and escaped in wisps that framed a delicate face. It seemed as if a French duchess had been teleported to the prairie, and her voice dripped with learning. Her name, she said, was Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup. She ran the Riverbank Cipher School. The other woman was her younger, darker-haired sister, Miss Kate Wells.

Young Elizebeth gathered from this brief conversation that Mrs. Gallup and Miss Wells lived and worked here at Riverbank in this very building, which also contained quarters for the cooks and servants who fed and catered to the sisters and to the other scholars and scientists who worked on the estate.

The sisters informed Elizebeth that dinner would soon be served here at the Lodge, and that she would be dining with the two of them and some of the scientists as well. Mrs. Gallup and Miss Wells suggested that she head upstairs and freshen up in a certain spare bedroom where she would be sleeping. Elizebeth did as asked, and some minutes later, when she descended the stairs, she saw that Fabyan had returned, in striking new clothes: riding pants, a billowing shirt with a riding collar, and a big, broad cowboy hat. He looked ready to jump on a horse and gallop away. It didn’t make sense to her at the time, given that he was about to eat dinner; later she would realize that Fabyan simply enjoyed dressing up as the ideal of a country squire. She would never once see him wearing a traditional business suit at Riverbank.

People began streaming into the Lodge in ones and twos, walking up the steps to the porch in the fading prairie light. Elizebeth sat on the bannister of the staircase, looking out across the Lincoln Highway, listening to crickets chirp and cicadas sing, watching the guests arrive. They all wore semiformal clothes with a country feel, except for a slim man in a pinstriped shirt and pants, a neat bow tie, and sparkling white buck shoes. He had short, dark hair parted in the exact middle of his head and pomaded to each side, and his ears were pointy; he seemed like the youngest of the arriving guests, and by far the best dressed, as if he were attending a society dinner at some mansion in the city. The young man reminded Elizebeth of Beau Brummell, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British fashion icon who polished his boots with champagne and peach marmalade.

They sat down to dinner at a long communal table covered with fine china and linens. Swedish and Danish servants appeared in crisp white uniforms and brought heaping plates of meat and vegetables from Riverbank’s working farm. To keep food costs low and to satisfy his own taste for meat, Fabyan kept the farm stocked with chickens, ducks, sheep, and turkeys, and his wife, Nelle, bred prize-winning livestock here. Mrs. Gallup sat at the head of the table, flanked by the other guests, all of them lured here by Fabyan to investigate different pieces of the world. Elizebeth spoke little and tried to get a sense of who these people were and what they were doing here. A sweet-seeming man in his fifties introduced himself as J. A. Powell, president of the University of Chicago Press and the top public relations man at that university; his job there was to “cause the University of Chicago to be known as well in Peking as in Peoria,” the Tribune once put it. Another dinner guest was Bert Eisenhour, Riverbank’s chief engineer and builder of structures, a short man with a ruddy complexion who struck Elizebeth as a country bumpkin.

Then there was the well-dressed man with the white buck shoes. He smiled shyly at Elizebeth and introduced himself as William Friedman, head of the Genetics Department at Riverbank. He worked here studying seeds and plants, breeding new strains of corn, wheat, and other crops, trying to infuse them with desirable properties.

Altogether it was a curious bunch of characters. Elizebeth couldn’t see an obvious thread that connected them. Literary scholars, an engineer, a geneticist. Perhaps Fabyan was the kind of rich person who collected people in addition to banknotes and stocks.

The dominant personality that night was Mrs. Gallup. As the smell of meat and the noise of clinking silverware filled the room, and the servants whisked away the empty plates, Mrs. Gallup told stories of her travels while researching Francis Bacon and Shakespeare, staying in the homes of wealthy patrons around the world, in France and in England, who believed in her theories and had sponsored her work. When she spoke about the details of her investigations and findings, no one interrupted her to ask skeptical questions. It was obvious to Elizebeth that people here were used to treating Mrs. Gallup with great deference, that she was an important person at Riverbank, and that dinner conversations like this had probably happened many times before, with Mrs. Gallup holding court and the others nodding and smiling. Elizebeth got the sense that “Mrs. Gallup had dwelt only among those who agreed with her premise and that she had little personal contact with the viewpoint of those who did not believe.”

After dinner, the guests went their separate ways. Fabyan gave Elizebeth a set of men’s pajamas to wear to bed, telling her they would have more to discuss in the morning, and wishing her good night. She went upstairs to her room and found that a pitcher of ice water had been left on her bedside table along with an enormous bowl of fresh fruit, plus knives to carve it up.

On Elizebeth’s second day at Riverbank, after she woke in the Lodge and got dressed, Fabyan found her and said she ought to see the rest of the estate. He assigned an employee to give her a short tour.

Fifty or sixty yards along the highway from the Lodge was a smattering of buildings known collectively as Riverbank Laboratories, where many of the scientists worked. Elizebeth was told that a new laboratory was under construction for the study of sound waves, designed by the top acoustics expert in the country, Professor Wallace Sabine of Harvard University, who would move to Riverbank when the new lab was complete. Adjacent to Riverbank Laboratories was the ordnance building, a low concrete hut where Fabyan and several scientists tested bombs and mortars for potential use by the U.S. military.

Elizebeth wasn’t shown inside these buildings but instead was led across the highway to an iron gate she had seen yesterday while riding in the limo. She walked through it. A short, curving driveway led down a gentle slope to Fabyan’s personal residence, known as the Villa, a long, low two-story house in a cruciform shape with a heavy roof and thin clapboard siding that seemed to press the house downward into the hill. Originally a far smaller farmhouse, it had been expanded in 1907 by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who produced a mansion for Fabyan that looked like a peaceful part of the countryside. Strange objects dotted the lawn: a concrete wading pool, a concrete table and concrete semicircular bench carved with elaborate Egyptian hieroglyphs, a concrete chair whose front legs were sphinxes, and a concrete duck the size of a human eight-year-old.

Inside the Villa the walls were paneled with squares of dark walnut, and the sun shone through a series of thin slats that Wright’s builders had carved in the hill-facing wall and that decorated the opposite wall with rhombuses of light. Elizebeth was amazed to see that the chairs and divans in the living room and drawing room and even the beds upstairs were suspended from the ceiling on chains—no chair or bed legs anywhere to be seen. She had no idea what to make of this. Fabyan and Nelle each had their own private bedchamber. It was unclear whether they slept in the same room. On a wide veranda that looked down to the river, another piece of furniture swung on chains, a wicker chair with arms woven from thick reeds.

Taxidermized animals stared out from walls and glass display cases inside the house, beasts that Fabyan or his wealthy friends had killed and stuffed: a buck, an alligator, a Gila monster, a shark, birds of all kinds (grouses, owls, hawks), and hundreds of bird eggs, speckled with blue, yellow, and pink. There was also a valuable work of art in the Villa that had once been displayed to millions at the White City: a life-size marble statue of a naked woman petting a lion, her right hand falling across the lion’s mane, the lion looking calmly to the side. The statue was called Diana and the Lion, or Intellect Dominating Brute Force.

The mastery of Nature. This appeared to be Fabyan’s preoccupation.

Back outside, Elizebeth walked down the steepening hill toward the Fox River until it leveled out a hundred yards from the water. A curving path took her through a Shinto arch of wood and into a pristine garden ringed by buildings, benches, and lanterns of Japanese design. She was told it had all been devised by one of the emperor’s own personal gardeners. Flowering trees were aflame with pink and red and blue and orange blossoms that breathed their reflections onto a circular pool at the garden’s center, the surface of the water like a painter’s palette smeared with color. A half-moon footbridge spanned the pool. Every leaf and flower, every plank of wood and drop of water seemed designed for maximum tranquility, except for the low concrete structure to the right of the pool, shaped like a hexagon, protected by heavy black iron bars. It was a bear cage. Fabyan kept two pet grizzly bears inside. Their names were Tom and Jerry.

The river lay beyond, a placid silver width flowing southward, from left to right, away from the center of Geneva. Elizebeth could see a small island in the middle of the river, connected to the near shore by two bridges, and on the far bank, an impressive Dutch windmill, a giant X spinning against the sky. It was explained to her that Fabyan had bought the windmill in Holland and transported it here, piece by piece.

Later that day, after the tour, Elizebeth sat down with Mrs. Gallup in the Lodge to discuss the work they might do together if Elizebeth were to accept the research position. They talked for two or three hours, not long enough for Elizebeth to grasp the full nature of the project but sufficient to get a sense of Mrs. Gallup’s immediate needs and her personality.

Unlike Fabyan, Mrs. Gallup spoke in a restrained, careful manner, the tones of a scholar. There was nothing hucksterish about her at all. She illustrated her explanations with oversize sheets of paper that were curled up like scrolls. She rolled them out to their full length to show Elizebeth, and placed weights on the ends to prevent them from curling up again. The sheets were beautiful and full of hand-drawn letters of the alphabet in subtle variations, lowercase and uppercase, roman and italic:

Mrs. Gallup said she had drawn these letterforms from photographic enlargements of the Newberry Library’s First Folio of Shakespeare, and the drawings had helped reveal the secrets that Francis Bacon had woven into Shakespeare’s plays. In some way Elizebeth didn’t understand yet, the hidden messages were embedded in the shapes of the letters themselves, in small variations between an f on one page of the Folio and an f on another.

According to Mrs. Gallup, she had already discovered these messages. She knew what they said; she was certain they existed. The problem, as she saw it, was that some literary experts disputed her method and doubted that the messages were really there. So Elizebeth’s job at Riverbank would be twofold. First she would use Mrs. Gallup’s method to reproduce her existing results, providing scientific confirmation and silencing the critics. Then Elizebeth would assist Mrs. Gallup with new investigations. Mrs. Gallup believed that in addition to authoring Shakespeare, Bacon also secretly wrote works commonly attributed to Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and other major figures of the age. Together Elizebeth and Mrs. Gallup would rewrite the history of seventeenth-century England—and by extension, the history of all English literature.

George Fabyan popped in briefly, to see how the women were getting on, rolling out one of Mrs. Gallup’s scrolls and regarding it with evident satisfaction.

It was a lot for Elizebeth to process. Over the last twenty-four hours she had been accosted by an eccentric tycoon, dragged to his hall-of-wonders laboratory in the countryside, introduced to a merry team of scientific experts, told about a secret cipher embedded in the heart of the First Folio, and invited to assist them in turning history upside down.

That evening Elizebeth returned to her room in the Lodge to find a vase of flowers and another bowl of fresh fruit by the bed, filled to abundance. She lay awake for a time, thinking about all she had seen and heard, stunned and a bit jangled by the weirdness of Fabyan’s kingdom, yet impressed with Mrs. Gallup’s erudition and quiet confidence. To be sure, their theory was unconventional, but what if it was correct? If there was even a chance that Fabyan and Mrs. Gallup were on to something here, how could Elizebeth pass up a chance to join an effort of such magnitude? The next day, when she rode the Union Pacific back to Chicago, she was buzzing with “a mixture of astonishment, incredulity, and curiosity.”

On the morning of June 7, around the time Elizebeth Smith had first arrived in the city to look for a job, five thousand women marched toward the Republican National Convention, being held at the Coliseum, to demand the right to vote. The wind and rain shoved the women this way and that by the handles of their increasingly useless umbrellas. Dye from their yellow sashes streamed down their legs. Reaching the convention hall, the women surged through the entryway. Water poured from straw hats, hems, and sleeves, pooling at their feet in a spreading puddle. Many held rain-blurred signs. “We want to be citizens. Do we look desirable?” The protesters demanded that the GOP support a constitutional amendment granting women the vote, but after debating the issue, the delegates decided that an amendment would violate “the right of each state to settle this question for itself.”

Elizebeth Smith wasn’t involved in the suffrage movement or any other. Her views on women’s rights at age twenty-three were complicated. She idolized the suffrage pioneers but doubted that men would give up their power without a vicious fight. Earlier that year she had found herself riding a crowded bus when a heavyset woman looked straight at her and then used her rump to shove her out of the way. Elizebeth fumed in her diary, “No woman’s rights was adequate to the situation then! I wanted genuine masculine title; if I had been a man she’d never have dared do it.”

There in the city, she reviewed her options. Should she take the job that George Fabyan had offered, or go back home to Indiana? She couldn’t decide. Fabyan scared her. But she had wanted an unusual job, and in all her life she had never seen a place so unusual as Fabyan’s estate.

She was running out of clean clothes in her suitcase. She was out of time.

Elizebeth made her way to the Chicago & North Western train station. At the ticket counter she asked, in her firm, polite voice, for a fare to Geneva, Illinois.

When she arrived once again at Riverbank, Fabyan and Mrs. Gallup were glad to see her. They wasted no time, and began teaching her how to dive for what Francis Bacon had left behind: a sunken treasure of words, a ship of gold at the bottom of the sea.

CHAPTER 3
Bacon’s Ghost

Mrs. Gallup had to know if her new assistant, this Elizebeth Smith, could be trained to see. So this is where they began—with a deciphering test.

In the Lodge, Mrs. Gallup placed several pages in front of Elizebeth. One was a worksheet of white paper with some typing on it, eight lines of text from the Shakespeare Folio. The text was broken into five-letter blocks:

TheWo rkeso fWill iamSh akesp earec ontai ninga llhis Comed iesHi stori esand Trage diesT ruely setfo . . .

When Elizebeth read the text and skipped over the spaces, she could make sense of it as English:

The workes of William Shakespeare containing all his Comedies Histories and Tragedies Truely set . . .

She recognized these words from one of the early pages of the First Folio, “The Names of the Principall Actors.”

According to Mrs. Gallup, Francis Bacon had concealed a message on this page. She already knew the secret, but needed to know if Elizebeth could find it, too.

Mrs. Gallup always said that as a devout Christian she was appalled when she first discovered the secret messages of Francis Bacon. She did not traffic in such matters as Bacon discussed: deception, blackmail, adultery, the insatiable lusts of queens and earls. “Surprise followed surprise,” Mrs. Gallup wrote, “as the hidden messages were disclosed, and disappointment as well was not infrequently encountered. Some of the disclosures are of a nature repugnant, in many respects, to my very soul.” However, her own moral beliefs were irrelevant. “The sole question is—what are the facts? These cannot be determined by slight and imperfect examinations, preconceived ideas, abstract contemplation, or vigor of denunciation.”

She was not the first person who claimed that Shakespeare was really Francis Bacon in disguise. This idea, known as the “Baconian” theory, enjoyed broad appeal and made a certain sense. Francis Bacon and Shakespeare had lived in the same country in the same era, the England of Queen Elizabeth I, and of the two men, Bacon was by far the more distinguished, a child prodigy who graduated from Trinity College at age fifteen, studied law, served in Parliament, became lord chancellor, won the lofty titles of Baron Verulam and Viscount St. Albans, and wrote manifestoes that heralded the dawn of the scientific age and inspired generations of inventors and revolutionaries. Charles Darwin idolized Francis Bacon; Thomas Jefferson thought Bacon was among the two or three greatest men who ever lived; Teddy Roosevelt’s love of Bacon’s writings encouraged him to create America’s system of national parks.

The radical idea that made Bacon a legend is one of the epigraphs of this book: “Knowledge itself is power” (his admirers often shortened it to “knowledge is power”). What people called science in Bacon’s day was more like philosophy or logic: the thinking of beautiful thoughts. Bacon said no, science is about physical evidence. Knowledge is found not in the skull but in contact with Nature. And Bacon made it his mission to collect and classify all forms of knowledge, arguing that if enough knowledge was gathered and sorted and pinned to the page, there was nothing men could not achieve. In an unfinished utopian novel, The New Atlantis, Bacon imagined a lush, remote island ruled by superintelligent scientists. The people spend their days studying the native beasts and plants, running experiments in towers, caves, artificial lakes, and specially constructed laboratories. The island is a like a cross between a research university and a nature preserve, a place devoted to the investigation of light, acoustics, perfumes, engines, furnaces, mammals, fishes, flowers, seeds, geometry, illusions, deceptions, and, above all, methods of extending human life, of achieving immortality. He thought humans might learn to live forever, be immortal, become like gods.

All in all, Bacon was such an impressive person that it seemed perfectly plausible to writers and scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that Bacon might have written Shakespeare’s plays under a pseudonym. Mark Twain believed it. So did Nathaniel Hawthorne. Was there proof? Had Bacon left a hidden signature? Men and women romped through the grassy fields of the texts and scraped at the individual letters with every kind of tool imaginable. Anagrams: whereby existing letters are rearranged to create new words and phrases. (The phrase “Maister William Shakespeare” in the 1623 Folio can be anagrammed into “I maske as a writer I spelle Ham.”) Numerology: whereby letters are converted into numbers that seem significant. (If A=1 and B=2, the name “Bacon” is 2+1+3+14+13, equaling 33; the appearance of 33 in any count of Shakespeare’s words is a signature of Bacon.) One man, Orville Ward Owen, a physician from Detroit, invented a machine he called a “wheel,” two large wooden spools stretched with one thousand feet of canvas on which he had printed thousands of pages of different Elizabethan texts. Dr. Owen and his team of assistants would spin the wheel, look for instances of four “code words” they believed were important (FORTUNE, HONOUR, NATURE, and REPUTATION), write down words that appeared next to those four words, and arrange them into sentences.

What made Mrs. Gallup different from these other investigators was that she presented herself first and foremost as a scientist, and her system for finding the messages was the most scientific and plausible yet. It wasn’t something that came to her in a dream. The method had been demonstrated by Francis Bacon himself, in his book De Augmentis Scientarium, published the same year as Shakespeare’s First Folio, 1623.

Bacon revealed that year that he had invented a new type of cipher, a method to signify “omnia per omnia”: anything by means of anything. It possessed what he said were the three virtues of a good cipher: it was “easy and not laborious to write,” it was “safe,” and it did not raise suspicion—that is, an enciphered message would not appear, at first glance, to be in cipher at all. These are still sound principles today. His insight was that all letters of the alphabet can be represented with only two letters, if the two letters are combined in different permutations of five-letter blocks. The letters i and j, and u and v, were interchangeable in Bacon’s time, so, choosing a and b for the two letters that represent all the rest, the new alphabet looks like this:

A

B

C

D

E

F

aaaaa

aaaab

aaaba

aaabb

aabaa

aabab

G

H

I, J

K

L

M

aabba

aabbb

abaaa

abaab

ababa

ababb

N

O

P

Q

R

S

abbaa

abbab

abbba

abbbb

baaaa

baaab

T

U, V

W

X

Y

Z

baaba

baabb

babaa

babab

babba

babbb

Each letter becomes five, so a word like Riverbank, written in this cipher, grows five times as long: baaaa abaaa baabb aabaa baaaa aaaab aaaaa abbaa abaab.

This is exactly like binary code, the language at the root of computers, and Morse code as well. In all of these systems, just two symbols, arranged in different combinations, can stand for many others. Binary code uses 0s and 1s, Morse code dots and dashes. Francis Bacon discovered the basic principle in 1623.

Crucially to Mrs. Gallup, he also showed the flexibility and power of his cipher by example. Bacon pointed out that the two letters that represent the others in his cipher don’t have to be a and b. They can be c and d, or x and y. They can be physical objects, like apples and oranges arranged on a table; they can be sounds, like the alternating and audibly distinct shots of a musket and a cannon. In Bacon’s cipher, the plaintext for is “deaf.” means “die.” All that’s required is a “biliteral alphabet,” an alphabet made of any two forms that are recognizably different. Write a manifesto with candies, send a love letter with bullets. As long as you specify an a-form and b-form, you can make anything stand for anything else. Omnia per omnia.

You can even camouflage a secret message in plain sight.

A message that reads aaaba abbab aaabb aabaa is obviously written in cipher, and anyone who intercepts it will know it contains a secret. Bacon suggested creating a “bi-formed alphabet” to overcome this problem—an alphabet with two slightly different versions of each letter, an a-form and a b-form. For example, an italic letter might be the a-form, and a normal, “roman” letter the b-form. A string of text like

knowledge is power

might translate to

run

This was the heart of Mrs. Gallup’s method. She scoured photo enlargements of pages from Shakespeare’s First Folio and other Elizabethan books, looking for minute differences in the shapes of letterforms to discover the “biformed alphabet” she believed Bacon had planted in the text—the two alphabets with letters of different shapes. Then she drew charts of the a-form letters and the b-form letters. Then she went back through the original texts of the old books and compared each letter to the drawings of the letters on her charts, deciding if a letter was an a-form or a b-form. After classifying five letters in this manner, she was able to check Bacon’s key (aaaaa=A, aaaab=B, aaaba=C) and write one letter of the final message. And that was when she found the secrets that troubled her Christian conscience.

Queene Elizabeth is my true mother and I am the lawfull heire to the throne. Finde the cypher storie my bookes containe. It tells great secrets, every one of which, if imparted openly, would forfeit my life. —F. Bacon.

Francis of Verulam is author of all the plays heretofore published by Marlowe, Greene, Peele, Shakespeare, and of the two and twenty now put out for the first time. Some are alter’d to continue this history.

Francis St. Alban, descended from the mighty heroes of Troy, loving and revering these noble ancestors, hid in his writings Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (in cipher), with the Aeneid of the noble Virgil, prince of Latin poets, inscribing the letters to Elizabeth. . . . He in this way, and in his Cypher workes, gives full directions, in a great many places, for finding and unfolding of severall weightie secrets, hidden from those who would persecute the betrayer.

You will either finde the guides or be lost in the labyrinth.

—Fr. St. Alban.

First published in her 1899 book The Biliteral Cypher of Sir Francis Bacon Discovered in His Works and Deciphered by Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, the messages told an alternate history of Elizabethan England that riveted journalists and divided scholars. According to Mrs. Gallup’s decipherments, Francis Bacon wasn’t just the great genius of his age. He was a secret king: the bastard son of Queen Elizabeth, known for her indiscretions, and the Earl of Leicester. During his own lifetime, Bacon was afraid that if he claimed his royal blood, he would be killed to suppress a scandal, so he had found a way to smuggle the truth into history, using his cipher to conceal messages in “great dramaticall works” he wrote under pseudonyms (Shakespeare, Marlowe) and also in “workes of science” published under his own name. He conspired with printers to sneak the cipher into books without anyone catching on, and he taught the cipher to a clandestine society of engineers, the Rosicrucian Society of England, who conducted scientific experiments in secret, fearing accusations of witchcraft. Using the cipher, Bacon and the Rosicrucians were able to exchange dangerous knowledge without fear of discovery and design technologically advanced machines.

Her work unleashed a furor. Mrs. Gallup seemed to come out of nowhere with an impressive scientific procedure and reams of proof. “Here are 360 pages of deciphered matter,” one journalist wrote in a typical review, “with sufficient means of proof to satisfy any investigator.” Skeptics questioned the veracity of the messages and said Mrs. Gallup must be imagining them; she savaged her critics in icy pamphlets and letters to the editor, writing that her style of analysis was “impossible to those who are not possessed of an eyesight of the keenest and most perfect accuracy of vision in distinguishing minute differences in form, lines, angles and curves in the printed letters. Other things absolutely essential are unlimited time and patience, and aptitude, love for overcoming puzzling difficulties, and, I sometimes think inspiration.” She argued that if other people could not replicate her findings, it was their own fault—they had poor eyesight, they were lazy, they were uninspired.

She traveled to Oxford, England, and won converts in the literary community there. She produced testimony from researchers in England and America who swore that they had been able to replicate her decipherments: Mrs. Gertrude Horsford Fiske, Mrs. Henry Pott, Mr. Henry Seymour, Mrs. D. J. Kindersley, Mr. James Phinney Baxter. And of all her supporters, no one had more faith than George Fabyan. He invited Mrs. Gallup and her sister to Riverbank in 1912 and gave them carte blanche to pursue their investigation to its ultimate end. There was nothing he would not buy or build to support her work, no mode of investigation too outlandish or expensive. After establishing herself at Riverbank, Mrs. Gallup reported that she had deciphered a message from Bacon describing an “acoustical levitation device,” an antigravity machine he apparently invented in the seventeenth century. It used the vibrations of musical strings to lift a rapidly rotating cylinder off the ground. Fabyan ordered his chief engineer, Bert Eisenhour, to build the machine out of wood. The result looked like a water wheel. Eisenhour couldn’t get it to work. Something about the tuning of the strings. Fabyan was undaunted, saying, “The inheritance which the world received from Mrs. Gallup’s work is the greatest that has ever been given to posterity.”

He wrote that in 1916, the same year Elizebeth Smith arrived at Riverbank and was handed her first deciphering test by Mrs. Gallup.

Elizebeth looked at the test worksheet:

TheWo rkeso fWill iamSh akesp earec ontai ninga llhis Comed iesHi stori esand Trage diesT ruely setfo . . .

Along with the typed worksheet, Mrs. Gallup had provided a photo enlargement of the actual page from the First Folio on which these words appeared. There was a copy of the biformed alphabet that Mrs. Gallup had already extracted from this part of the Folio—a list of all the a- and b-forms apparently inserted by Bacon. Mrs. Gallup also gave Elizebeth a looking glass of her own, and the key to the biliteral cipher: aaaaa means A, aaaab means B, and so on. To find the secret message, Elizebeth would need to squint at the Folio page through the glass, decide if each letter was an a-form or a b-form, and write a dash or a slash on the typed worksheet above the corresponding letter: a dash for a-form, a slash for b-form. Once Elizebeth made five dashes or slashes, she should check the key and write one letter of the final message. For instance, if her pattern of dashes and slashes looked like

--//-

then she would write the letter G.

Elizebeth knew nothing about secret writing at this point. She had never studied codes and ciphers. She had never even been particularly fond of puzzles. She was as fresh to the whole subject as any person off the street. But Mrs. Gallup had given her the rules of the game, and now she tried to follow them.

TheWo rkeso fWill iamSh akesp earec ontai ninga llhis Comed iesHi stori esand Trage diesT ruely setfo . . .

She started looking back and forth between the Folio page and the biformed alphabet, trying to tell if the letters were a- or b-forms. It was slow going. She got stuck on the first couple of letters, staring and staring through the glass, unable to decide if a letter was an a- or b-form. The variations were subtle: a slight wobble in the stem of an H, a tilt in the ovals of a g. It was like trying to sort blueberries by color, or beach pebbles by smoothness. Ultimately she needed Mrs. Gallup’s help to get the answer, and it still took her eight hours to produce the twenty-four-word plaintext translation: “As I sometimes place rules and directions in other ciphers, you must seeke for the others, soone to aide in writing. Fr. of Ve (Francis of Verona).” She signed it on the bottom:

Each letter becomes five, so a word like Riverbank, written in this cipher, grows five times as long: baaaa abaaa baabb aabaa baaaa aaaab aaaaa abbaa abaab.

This is exactly like binary code, the language at the root of computers, and Morse code as well. In all of these systems, just two symbols, arranged in different combinations, can stand for many others. Binary code uses 0s and 1s, Morse code dots and dashes. Francis Bacon discovered the basic principle in 1623.

Crucially to Mrs. Gallup, he also showed the flexibility and power of his cipher by example. Bacon pointed out that the two letters that represent the others in his cipher don’t have to be a and b. They can be c and d, or x and y. They can be physical objects, like apples and oranges arranged on a table; they can be sounds, like the alternating and audibly distinct shots of a musket and a cannon. In Bacon’s cipher, the plaintext for is “deaf.” means “die.” All that’s required is a “biliteral alphabet,” an alphabet made of any two forms that are recognizably different. Write a manifesto with candies, send a love letter with bullets. As long as you specify an a-form and b-form, you can make anything stand for anything else. Omnia per omnia.

You can even camouflage a secret message in plain sight.

A message that reads aaaba abbab aaabb aabaa is obviously written in cipher, and anyone who intercepts it will know it contains a secret. Bacon suggested creating a “bi-formed alphabet” to overcome this problem—an alphabet with two slightly different versions of each letter, an a-form and a b-form. For example, an italic letter might be the a-form, and a normal, “roman” letter the b-form. A string of text like

knowledge is power

might translate to

run

This was the heart of Mrs. Gallup’s method. She scoured photo enlargements of pages from Shakespeare’s First Folio and other Elizabethan books, looking for minute differences in the shapes of letterforms to discover the “biformed alphabet” she believed Bacon had planted in the text—the two alphabets with letters of different shapes. Then she drew charts of the a-form letters and the b-form letters. Then she went back through the original texts of the old books and compared each letter to the drawings of the letters on her charts, deciding if a letter was an a-form or a b-form. After classifying five letters in this manner, she was able to check Bacon’s key (aaaaa=A, aaaab=B, aaaba=C) and write one letter of the final message. And that was when she found the secrets that troubled her Christian conscience.

Queene Elizabeth is my true mother and I am the lawfull heire to the throne. Finde the cypher storie my bookes containe. It tells great secrets, every one of which, if imparted openly, would forfeit my life. —F. Bacon.

Francis of Verulam is author of all the plays heretofore published by Marlowe, Greene, Peele, Shakespeare, and of the two and twenty now put out for the first time. Some are alter’d to continue this history.

Francis St. Alban, descended from the mighty heroes of Troy, loving and revering these noble ancestors, hid in his writings Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (in cipher), with the Aeneid of the noble Virgil, prince of Latin poets, inscribing the letters to Elizabeth. . . . He in this way, and in his Cypher workes, gives full directions, in a great many places, for finding and unfolding of severall weightie secrets, hidden from those who would persecute the betrayer.

You will either finde the guides or be lost in the labyrinth.

—Fr. St. Alban.

First published in her 1899 book The Biliteral Cypher of Sir Francis Bacon Discovered in His Works and Deciphered by Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, the messages told an alternate history of Elizabethan England that riveted journalists and divided scholars. According to Mrs. Gallup’s decipherments, Francis Bacon wasn’t just the great genius of his age. He was a secret king: the bastard son of Queen Elizabeth, known for her indiscretions, and the Earl of Leicester. During his own lifetime, Bacon was afraid that if he claimed his royal blood, he would be killed to suppress a scandal, so he had found a way to smuggle the truth into history, using his cipher to conceal messages in “great dramaticall works” he wrote under pseudonyms (Shakespeare, Marlowe) and also in “workes of science” published under his own name. He conspired with printers to sneak the cipher into books without anyone catching on, and he taught the cipher to a clandestine society of engineers, the Rosicrucian Society of England, who conducted scientific experiments in secret, fearing accusations of witchcraft. Using the cipher, Bacon and the Rosicrucians were able to exchange dangerous knowledge without fear of discovery and design technologically advanced machines.

Her work unleashed a furor. Mrs. Gallup seemed to come out of nowhere with an impressive scientific procedure and reams of proof. “Here are 360 pages of deciphered matter,” one journalist wrote in a typical review, “with sufficient means of proof to satisfy any investigator.” Skeptics questioned the veracity of the messages and said Mrs. Gallup must be imagining them; she savaged her critics in icy pamphlets and letters to the editor, writing that her style of analysis was “impossible to those who are not possessed of an eyesight of the keenest and most perfect accuracy of vision in distinguishing minute differences in form, lines, angles and curves in the printed letters. Other things absolutely essential are unlimited time and patience, and aptitude, love for overcoming puzzling difficulties, and, I sometimes think inspiration.” She argued that if other people could not replicate her findings, it was their own fault—they had poor eyesight, they were lazy, they were uninspired.

She traveled to Oxford, England, and won converts in the literary community there. She produced testimony from researchers in England and America who swore that they had been able to replicate her decipherments: Mrs. Gertrude Horsford Fiske, Mrs. Henry Pott, Mr. Henry Seymour, Mrs. D. J. Kindersley, Mr. James Phinney Baxter. And of all her supporters, no one had more faith than George Fabyan. He invited Mrs. Gallup and her sister to Riverbank in 1912 and gave them carte blanche to pursue their investigation to its ultimate end. There was nothing he would not buy or build to support her work, no mode of investigation too outlandish or expensive. After establishing herself at Riverbank, Mrs. Gallup reported that she had deciphered a message from Bacon describing an “acoustical levitation device,” an antigravity machine he apparently invented in the seventeenth century. It used the vibrations of musical strings to lift a rapidly rotating cylinder off the ground. Fabyan ordered his chief engineer, Bert Eisenhour, to build the machine out of wood. The result looked like a water wheel. Eisenhour couldn’t get it to work. Something about the tuning of the strings. Fabyan was undaunted, saying, “The inheritance which the world received from Mrs. Gallup’s work is the greatest that has ever been given to posterity.”

He wrote that in 1916, the same year Elizebeth Smith arrived at Riverbank and was handed her first deciphering test by Mrs. Gallup.

Elizebeth looked at the test worksheet:

TheWo rkeso fWill iamSh akesp earec ontai ninga llhis Comed iesHi stori esand Trage diesT ruely setfo . . .

Along with the typed worksheet, Mrs. Gallup had provided a photo enlargement of the actual page from the First Folio on which these words appeared. There was a copy of the biformed alphabet that Mrs. Gallup had already extracted from this part of the Folio—a list of all the a- and b-forms apparently inserted by Bacon. Mrs. Gallup also gave Elizebeth a looking glass of her own, and the key to the biliteral cipher: aaaaa means A, aaaab means B, and so on. To find the secret message, Elizebeth would need to squint at the Folio page through the glass, decide if each letter was an a-form or a b-form, and write a dash or a slash on the typed worksheet above the corresponding letter: a dash for a-form, a slash for b-form. Once Elizebeth made five dashes or slashes, she should check the key and write one letter of the final message. For instance, if her pattern of dashes and slashes looked like

--//-

then she would write the letter G.

Elizebeth knew nothing about secret writing at this point. She had never studied codes and ciphers. She had never even been particularly fond of puzzles. She was as fresh to the whole subject as any person off the street. But Mrs. Gallup had given her the rules of the game, and now she tried to follow them.

TheWo rkeso fWill iamSh akesp earec ontai ninga llhis Comed iesHi stori esand Trage diesT ruely setfo . . .

She started looking back and forth between the Folio page and the biformed alphabet, trying to tell if the letters were a- or b-forms. It was slow going. She got stuck on the first couple of letters, staring and staring through the glass, unable to decide if a letter was an a- or b-form. The variations were subtle: a slight wobble in the stem of an H, a tilt in the ovals of a g. It was like trying to sort blueberries by color, or beach pebbles by smoothness. Ultimately she needed Mrs. Gallup’s help to get the answer, and it still took her eight hours to produce the twenty-four-word plaintext translation: “As I sometimes place rules and directions in other ciphers, you must seeke for the others, soone to aide in writing. Fr. of Ve (Francis of Verona).” She signed it on the bottom:

It went like this with the tests that followed. Mrs. Gallup handed Elizebeth a new Folio passage to decipher, and Elizebeth struggled for hours, solving it only with her boss’s intervention. From time to time Elizebeth carried her materials over to Gallup’s desk and set them down; Gallup pressed her eye to her looking glass, made some sharp pencil marks on Elizebeth’s sheet, and handed it back. Impressed, Elizebeth always asked Mrs. Gallup how she succeeded when Elizebeth failed—had she modified the list of a- and b-forms, tweaking the alphabet to get the “right” answer? No, she hadn’t: Elizebeth, being a novice, had failed to see the subtleties in the letters, had overlooked a little angle or an accent or a tiny shift in the position of the dot above an i.

At first she didn’t worry that she struggled with Mrs. Gallup’s system. Elizebeth awoke each morning in a dreamland. She had arrived to begin her new job during Riverbank’s sweetest season, the moment of peak summer pleasure, the colors and smells dialed all the way up, the food most plentiful: breakfasts of fresh eggs from the chickens on the farm, dinners of meats and fruits prepared by the nimble Danish and Swedish cooks. She took walks along the river. Wild orchids grew on the banks. Shapes of sunlight twitched on the water like spinning coins. Ragtime music played from somewhere. She turned her head searching for the source. Fabyan had installed a series of loudspeakers across the property, operable from a single control panel in the Villa, so that he and Nelle might listen to music at any spot on the estate, and the songs changed throughout the day, switching directions, coming now from the garden and now from the veranda, ragtime shifting to jazz, then to a Beethoven symphony, the boss, intense and restless, wanting to hear every kind of music all at once and never getting his fill.

Fabyan assigned her a bedroom in a two-story building called Engledew Cottage, named after a local florist and friend of the Fabyans’, one of the larger of the many cottages spread across the estate where “brain workers” lived. Engledew stood down the road from the Lodge a few hundred yards to the south, next to the farm with its big barn and Nelle Fabyan’s prize cows. There were shared work areas in Engledew Cottage as well as the Lodge, and during the day men and women walked back and forth between the cottages along the highway, carrying papers and books, as horse-drawn carriages and automobiles drove past.

Elizebeth wasn’t the only young woman assigned to cipher research at Riverbank. When she arrived there were at least two others, sisters from Chicago, barely out of high school. Fabyan tended to hire women out of clerical pools because it was convenient, but he had come to believe that in many ways they were better than men at analyzing ciphers. Women had the stamina and patience to look at text all day, and complained less. “Our experience at Riverbank,” Fabyan wrote, “has demonstrated that women are particularly adapted for this kind of work.”

After a few weeks Elizebeth fell into a routine, adjusting to the rhythm of her new job. Mrs. Gallup often worked with her assistants in the Lodge’s spacious living room, with its tall casement windows that looked east across the highway, toward the Villa and the river. The work atmosphere in the Lodge was a bit like how she imagined a museum of natural history or a lepidopterist’s lab to be, a place where people analyzed delicate objects, pinning dead butterflies to pages, drawing pictures. Mrs. Gallup sat at a handsome wooden desk, peering through an oblong looking glass at photo enlargements of pages from old books. The enlargements were made by William Friedman, the geneticist with the white buck shoes who had caught Elizebeth’s eye at her first dinner in the Lodge. Because William happened to be handy with a camera and a darkroom, Fabyan had roped him into the cipher project, even though it wasn’t his job, and he often visited the Lodge to drop off new prints for Mrs. Gallup.

The woman would raise the looking glass, lower it, write a few words in a notebook, raise it and lower it again, and write some more, hour after hour. When Elizebeth asked the other girls what Mrs. Gallup was doing, they said she was attempting to complete Bacon’s unfinished science fiction novel The New Atlantis, to recover the remainder of the text, which Mrs. Gallup believed was woven throughout Bacon’s works.

The cursive line of her pen was exceedingly fine. Each page of her notebook resembled a piece of art. She kept images of Bacon close at hand, for inspiration: an engraving of Bacon in his prime, a handsome youth with curls and a ruff; a picture of Gorhambury House, Bacon’s mansion outside London. She filled small wooden boxes with news clippings about her own research and that of her competitors, ultimately pasting the clips into scrapbooks.

The women worked long hours, into the evening, sun dipping low, flies swarming on the porch. “We lived hard and fast,” Elizebeth later recalled to the NSA’s Valaki, then paused, embarrassed. No, she did not mean to imply anything salacious. “I mean, there was absolutely no carousing, no parties, no nothing. Fabyan had use for only one kind of worker, and that was one that knew his business and worked at it damned hard.” He paid the codebreakers and scientists tiny salaries but promised to take care of them in all other ways. Food, lodging, recreation: they would live like the “minor idle rich” as long as they stayed under his wing at Riverbank.

And who would ever want to leave? On weekends Elizebeth put on her bathing suit, skidded down the hill to the river’s edge, and walked across the bridge to the island, which Fabyan called “Isle of View” because he liked that it sounded similar to “I love you.” The lighthouse rose above the northern bank of the island, and the southern bank was crowned with tall trees and a magnificent swimming pool built by Fabyan for the enjoyment of his staff, lit at night by floodlamps and lined with soaring Roman columns. Swimming there made Elizebeth feel like an Italian princess or an actress in a movie. The cool water licked off the sweat and she dried herself in the sun, talking and laughing with Mrs. Gallup’s other female assistants.

In August 1916 she turned twenty-four.

The men of Riverbank noticed Elizebeth early on, particularly the brain workers. They smoked pipes stuffed with cheap tobacco. They asked around about her story, tried to figure out if she was single, looked for ways to get her attention. Bert Eisenhour, the carpenter and engineer, pulled strings to borrow Fabyan’s Stutz Bearcat, a roadster with a four-stroke engine, and invited Elizebeth to climb in; seconds later she was ripping along the Lincoln Highway at 60 or 70 miles per hour with the top off. In an era when most roads were dirt and gravel, the highway was paved, a result of cooperation between Fabyan and other local business owners; as a result, “no billiard ball on the smoothest billiard table ever made could have more pleasure in motion than that enjoyed by the ordinary Illinoisan skimming in a powerful car over that gleaming, winding stretch of concrete,” a visitor once wrote. In the passenger seat of the Bearcat, Elizebeth raced past barns and silos, her body inches from the ground, wind plastering her curls to her head, engine roaring in her ears. She didn’t know if her head would blow off.

Another man who crossed her path during free hours was William Friedman, the geneticist and Mrs. Gallup’s photo assistant. He didn’t like to swim, because he was afraid he’d catch cold, but he enjoyed bicycling, and he and Elizebeth took leisurely rides together around the estate, stopping to picnic on the grass, sandhill cranes and red hawks circling above.

At twenty-five he was one of the younger male scientists, closest to her own age, so it felt natural to spend time with him. She appreciated his shy, precise way of speaking, his soft, halting voice that seemed to encode its own refutation, as if he were constantly checking a mental ticker tape of his words for correctness. One day he showed her where he lived on the estate. It was a working windmill—not the big showy Dutch contraption on the other side of the river but a smaller windmill on the same side of the road as the Lodge and the ordnance lab. It was two stories tall. William opened the door and she walked into an old, creaky structure, damp and warm, with a powerful smell of soil. She saw that the ground floor contained some microscopes and work shelves. An interior door led to the greenhouse that William managed, which is where Fabyan had him breeding new strains of crops and flowers, violets and wheat, and a type of corn with no cob.

Upstairs, he said, was his sleeping quarters, and down here was a little laboratory where he ran genetics experiments with living fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster. Elizebeth could see his bottles full of the teensy-weensy flies. Each bottle was about the size of a coffee mug, only thinner, and was smeared with some overripe banana that the flies ate. William explained that geneticists like to use fruit flies in experiments because they reproduce very quickly, then die. If you marry a normal fruit fly with a fly that has yellow eyes, say—a genetic mutation, an alteration in the biological code—they will produce children in three weeks, and you can look at the children to see if they have yellow eyes, showing they inherited the yellow-eye gene. There was something incongruous and surreal about seeing this good-looking young man in a crisply pressed white shirt and bow tie working in a rustic prairie windmill that smelled of banana and the sweetish decay of plant matter. Elizebeth used to watch him there, mating the flies, carefully pouring one bottle of flies into another, getting them to exchange their codes.

The size and scope of Riverbank was dawning on her. What had appeared on her first visit to be a sparsely populated stretch of land now revealed itself to be a small self-contained village, a community of 150 workers, some of whom had been with Fabyan for more than decade: the caretaker of the Japanese garden, Susumu Kobayashi; the boathouse manager, Jack “the Sailor” Wilhelmson, a happy and well-built Norwegian; Fabyan’s personal secretary, Belle Cumming, originally from Scotland, who kept Riverbank’s financial records in black folders and hurled torrents of profanity at guests she felt were overstepping their bounds; Silvio Silvestri, Fabyan’s personal sculptor. Fabyan hired them on whims. He trusted his own impressions of people instead of their accomplishments or educations. He brought people to Riverbank if he decided they were spectacular. He was always saying that to Elizebeth and everyone else: “Achieve success! Be spectacular! Then things break your way.”

To entice spectacular individuals to stay, he welcomed their spouses and children. Every child born on the estate received a sum of money from Fabyan, placed in a bank account to grow and pay for future schooling. This was another aspect of the place that made Elizebeth marvel: there were families here, boys and girls growing up at Riverbank. Fabyan seemed to genuinely love children. He handed out shiny dimes he kept in his coat pocket. He stopped whatever he was doing to answer their questions about Riverbank’s zoo creatures and explain the curious behaviors of the animals, to remove a snake from a cage with his own hands and demonstrate how a snake was able to disengage its jaw in order to swallow an egg.

Elizebeth realized that everything that appeared so hallucinatory to her about Riverbank must seem perfectly normal to these children. It was normal for them to live where two monkeys roamed outdoors wearing red diapers, one a kleptomaniac with a habit of stealing men’s keys. It was normal for Jack the Sailor to sing sea shanties to the children, dance the jig on their command, and teach them how to tie knots. It was normal to be outside playing and see a famous actress walk by, or Teddy Roosevelt, who liked to stroll the grounds with Fabyan and talk about crops, genetics, and Francis Bacon. In summer Jack the Sailor always wove a gigantic spiderweb out of rope that spanned two elm trees; squirrels climbed it, and children tried, and so did Lillie Langtry, a stage and vaudeville actress and an adventurous horsewoman. Other celebrities vacationed at Riverbank: the curly-haired actress and pilot Billie Dove; the aviator and polar explorer Richard Byrd; Broadway producer Flo Ziegfeld and his actress wife, the elegant Billie Burke, who would later play the role of Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz; the titans of the Chicago Stock Exchange, of which Fabyan was a member. They ate dinner with the Fabyans, George and Nelle, then drank and smoked around a campfire.

Elizebeth wasn’t impressed by the celebrities. She met and talked with Lillie Langtry, one of the most famous women in America at the time, and only mentioned it later in passing. Elizebeth was proud not to be “afflicted with the star-complex and hero-worship,” she would write later. “Whatever quality it is which is possessed by those who love the adulation and star worship seems to be, in my case, supplanted by an intense reach for freedom from observation—and for privacy.”

This is one reason Elizebeth became wary of George Fabyan almost immediately after starting her job: He seemed interested in prying into every part of her life. Soon after she arrived and settled in, Fabyan told her that the modest white and gray dresses she liked to wear were inadequate and she needed to buy a new wardrobe at Marshall Field’s in Chicago. Frugal by nature, Elizebeth resisted paying a premium for a name brand, but when she raised her voice to complain, Fabyan told her to hush. “That’s so typically Fabyan,” Elizebeth recalled: if you told him he was wrong, “[t]he next thing you know there’ll be a gun rammed down your throat.” He sent her into the city with one of his secretaries, who accompanied her to the department store and made sure she bought Fabyan-approved items.

She figured out within a week or two that she was dealing with a half-crazy individual of unlimited funds and a split personality.

There was a side of him that was authoritarian, that craved order and ceremony, which explained the bugler who played reveille in the morning and taps at night, and the American flag that was raised each morning and lowered in the evening, folded into a triangle as a cannon fired a ceremonial ball into the prairie dusk. The staff called him “Colonel” or “the Colonel.” Elizebeth was told to address Fabyan as “Colonel Fabyan,” and she did, assuming he must have served in the military; it was only later when she learned the truth, that the title of Colonel was an honorary one, bestowed by the governor out of gratitude after Fabyan allowed the Illinois National Guard to use the estate as a training ground. The governor even named a group of cavalry scouts the Fabyan Scouts. Chest leaping with pride, Fabyan recruited some local farmhands to join a militia he called the Fox Valley Guards, as if he aimed to build a personal army.

He liked to sit in the wicker chair that hung on chains from the tree next to his villa. Elizebeth heard people call it the “hell chair” and soon understood why. If Fabyan was angry at an employee or a guest, he brought that person over to the hell chair and sat there, screaming at the offender, giving them hell, while he swung to and fro, chains creaking. He sat there at night sometimes, in the hell chair, stoking the coals of a campfire in the dark.

The other side of Fabyan loved chaos and ripped through the days under power of impulse and inspiration. He had a habit of buying supplies sight unseen from train boxcars—a skyscraper’s worth of steel I-beams; seventy-five plows—and storing them in a warehouse next to the Dutch windmill that he called the Temple de Junk. He seemed to glory in randomness to the point of mocking the foundations of his world. He published a book, What I Know About the Future of Cotton and Domestic Goods, by George Fabyan, and kept copies in his office. Visitors grabbed the book with sweaty hands and flipped through, hoping for a stock tip from a wealthy cotton magnate. Inside were one hundred blank pages. It was Fabyan’s joke about the riddle of commerce, the arbitrary American system that kinged him with enough money that he didn’t have to care about money anymore.

He liked to dress up as a horseman or hunter, in riding coats and knee-high boots, but no one ever saw him riding a horse or shooting wild game, and he liked to dress up as a yachtsman, in a white sweater and jaunty blue cap, but no one ever saw him sailing a boat. He spilled across his kingdom on foot, thundering from place to place, dropping heavy ideas and moving on, letting others do the lifting. One day he walked past the swimming pool and saw a little girl, Sumiko Kobayashi, the daughter of his head gardener, resisting her first swimming lesson, crying because she was afraid of the water. Fabyan commanded an adult to throw her in the pool and let her learn by doing. He watched the terrified girl thrash for her life in the water, then walked away, satisfied with his solution, while the adults dove in and saved poor Sumiko from drowning.

He may have been a monster. But he was no idiot. To underestimate his intelligence was dangerous, Elizebeth sensed. She considered him to be, despite his lack of formal education, “a very bright man” with a cunning mind and a proven ability to predict how people and institutions would react to moments of stress and crisis. He could get anyone to listen to him. He didn’t read scientific papers; Elizebeth never saw him read anything longer than a newspaper headline. But he had been blessed with a near-photographic memory, and whatever his scientists told him, he could repeat back verbatim. This skill for mimicry, combined with his innate abilities as a salesman, made Fabyan seem like a credible prophet of science even when he was talking about things that science said were impossible. He pursued schemes for perpetual motion, infinite energy from nothing, and once showed Elizebeth a prototype of a perpetual-motion machine that he kept behind one of the labs. She was unimpressed: “I remember going, looking at it for quite a while, and it just seemed to me like a great, huge, metal something-or-other.” He argued that common human ailments could be traced to the fact that our primate ancestors crawled on their stomachs and humans have never properly learned to walk. And he wasn’t selling these ideas cynically; he really believed them. He was good at blurring the line between fantasy and reality because he didn’t believe any such line existed. As he once told William Friedman, I have seen impractical and improbable things accomplished. All it took to achieve improbable things was an optimistic attitude and a refusal to give up.

“We play the game day-to-day as best we can,” he was fond of saying.

Of all the investigations at Riverbank, Fabyan sold the Bacon cipher project the hardest. Though he gave every visitor at least a taste of the cipher work, presenting it as one element of the general package of wonders, he organized separate junkets to persuade hesitant or openly hostile academics that Riverbank had found the answer.

In the late summer of 1916 he began to lean on Elizebeth for help. He had already realized that when she spoke, even though she was only twenty-four, people listened to her—her good looks caught the eye of men and her precision and earnest intelligence held attention. He started to let her know that Professor So-and-So from Such-and-Such College was coming to learn about the cipher discoveries and Elizebeth needed to persuade this person that Riverbank’s approach was correct. “We’ll get along fine,” Fabyan told Elizebeth. “We’ll see if we can induce him to stay.”

The academic would come, all expenses paid. There would be a lot of food, a lot of wine. Fabyan usually delivered a presentation on the ciphers using lantern slides, square photographic negatives printed by William Friedman and projected onto the wall of a darkened room through a curved piece of glass. He had contempt for what he saw as the timid and conformist mind-set of literary intellectuals while at the same time wanting to win them over, and took pains to present himself as the sort of careful and factual man he felt they would be likely to respect. While displaying slides of the Folio and Mrs. Gallup’s lovely drawings of biformed alphabets she claimed to find within, Fabyan explained that he did not care about the “useless Bacon-Shakespeare controversy” of who wrote Shakespeare; that he only cared about getting to the bottom of the cipher contained in the plays; that he and his Riverbank colleagues had no use for anything but “hard, cold facts”; that the existence of the cipher was such a fact; that it had passed careful tests; that no one at Riverbank was making any money from these investigations; and that they were doing it for the benefit of humanity, committed to sharing their discoveries with the world. Who could object? The combination of his gravelly voice in the shadows and the delicate letters on the wall tended to disorient the guest and lull him into a state of increased charity toward the Riverbank view. Heads, ever so slightly, began to nod. Jaws to relax. And Elizebeth played her part. If a visitor grew sick of listening to Fabyan and turned to Elizebeth, asking what she thought, she said she was convinced that the work was solid, that the messages were really there.

Privately, though, she was beginning to doubt. Skeptical visitors made arguments difficult to refute. The head of the English department at the University of Chicago, John Matthews Manly, an authority on Chaucer and an amateur cryptologist, stayed at Riverbank for a time and concluded that it was all bunk. Manly was already famous in his field, didn’t need money or anything else Fabyan could offer, and he took delight in pointing out the holes in Mrs. Gallup’s method, like a boy in a roomful of red balloons, stomping them flat one by one. Fabyan asked Elizebeth to “wrassle” with Manly for a weekend, and she found him a pompous ass. At one point during an argument, Manly’s voice rising sharply, Elizebeth staying calm but arguing back, Manly pushed her on the shoulder, baffled and upset that anybody might challenge the great John M. Manly—she never forgot it. “Oh, my! That was too much to take. Ahhh!”

But there was substance to what he and other skeptics were saying, a stubborn logic that tugged at the hem. Mrs. Gallup’s technique depended on discerning small yet consistent fluctuations in letterforms in books made long ago, with the technology of a more primitive era. It strained credulity to think that the printers, setting the type by hand in 1623, could have duplicated these minute fluctuations across hundreds of copies of the First Folio, and in fact the variations between different Folio copies were sometimes larger than the variations Mrs. Gallup thought she saw in a single book.

Another skeptical argument moved Elizebeth. It was the literary case against Bacon’s secret messages. There was no kind way to put it: the messages were badly written. Francis St. Alban, descended from the mighty heroes of Troy, loving and revering these noble ancestors—was this tedious author the same one who gave such light and supple voice to Romeo’s desire for Juliet? See how she leans her cheek upon her hand. O that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek. To believe Mrs. Gallup’s theory, you had to believe that the plays, these warm-blooded, ravishing beasts, had been conceived almost as an afterthought, as mere envelopes for a stilted memoir about a guy whose mom was the queen. It made no sense. It would be like God creating a galaxy simply to tell a knock-knock joke to some distant deity, enciphered in the shapes of stars.

The big question then became: If the secret messages discovered by Mrs. Gallup weren’t really there, what was she seeing?

Elizebeth never once suspected that Mrs. Gallup was a fraud. Deception was not in her. The only possibility was that she had been somehow deceiving herself. Humans are so good at seeing patterns that we are often able to see patterns even when they aren’t really there. Mrs. Gallup must have been altering the rules of her method to fit the desired result, changing the all-important assignment of letters to the two baskets (a-form and b-form) until she saw words that made sense. Decades later Elizebeth and William would describe what they thought was happening with Mrs. Gallup, in a book they wrote as coauthors:

She could go through the texts extracting from them what she unconsciously wished to see in them. . . . With each successive letter deciphered she had a choice—limited but definite—of possibilities; and so, as she went on, there would be a kind of collaboration between the decipherer and the text, each influencing the other. Hence perhaps the curious maundering wordy character of the extracted messages, very like the communications of the spirit world: with some sense but no real mind behind them, just a sort of drifting intention, taking occasional sudden whimsical turns when the text momentarily mastered the decipherer.

This was the clarity of hindsight. In the moment, at Riverbank, Elizebeth didn’t know what to do with her doubt. She saw how her bosses responded to criticism. Mrs. Gallup restated her conclusions in combative letters and articles, denying that it was all a figment of her imagination and comparing herself to Galileo: “The idea that the earth moves, was once thought an illusion.” And Fabyan doubled down on publicity. He released a picture book for children, Ciphers for the Little Ones, that taught the story of Bacon and his biliteral cipher. He printed business cards alleging that Bacon was the bastard son of Queen Elizebeth and added at the bottom:

ALL INQUIRIES REGARDING THE SOURCE OF, AND AUTHORITY FOR, THESE HISTORICAL, BUT HITHERTO UNKNOWN FACTS, WILL BE PROMPTLY ANSWERED FROM

RIVERBANK LABORATORIES

Geneva, Illinois.

When people did inquire, Fabyan replied with a form letter describing the cipher project:

Riverbank Laboratories are a group of serious, earnest researchers, digging for facts. It is supported by Colonel Fabyan at his country home in Geneva, for his own information and amusement. . . .

A pressure was building in Elizebeth’s chest. It was the old scalding sensation she remembered from college when she realized people valued politeness more than truth. For now she kept her doubts to herself. She doubted her doubt. Who was she to declare that she was right and everyone else was wrong? Was it her vanity telling her that? How would she prove her case if she did speak up? Would she lose her job? Would anyone stick up for her? She was twenty-four. She was a nobody here. She was a nobody anywhere.

During conversations in the Lodge she looked around the room at the faces of her colleagues, trying to tell if they really believed or if they were just pretending. She sometimes met the eye of William Friedman. She wondered what he was thinking.

Lately they’d been talking more and more. William carried his camera everywhere, a black box that hung from his neck. Elizebeth was becoming his favorite photo subject. He would ask her to stand in a garden or on a square of grass, and he would hold the camera at chest level and look down at the image of her face in the glass.

She was learning more about him, where he came from and how he got here. His family was Jewish, originally from a town in Russia called Kishinev, where he was born with a different name, Wolfe. His parents changed it to William when they sailed to America a year after his birth, escaping a famine in Russia and the anti-Jewish laws of the Czar. They settled in Pittsburgh.

William said his father was a serious, bookish man, fluent in eight languages, a student of the Talmud. In Russia he had been a postal clerk but had trouble finding a good job in America and resorted to selling Singer sewing machines door-to-door. His mother worked as a peddler for a clothing company. So William and his four siblings grew up poor in Pittsburgh, poorer than Elizebeth’s family in Indiana.

He went to Cornell on a scholarship and chose to study genetics because it was a young field that “seemed to offer great possibilities for research and ingenuity.” He earned his degree and stayed on to teach a few courses as an untenured lecturer. That was when the unsolicited letter arrived from Fabyan in the general mailbox of the biology department. William didn’t know who Fabyan was. He said he ran a private research facility in Illinois and needed an expert in heredity to launch a genetics department and supervise experiments in the breeding of crops and fruit flies. William wrote back, introducing himself, and over the next three months, Fabyan courted him by mail, promising a life of intellectual freedom and adventure: “I am not looking for an agricultural expert, the woods are full of them; and I am not looking for a man to duplicate work that is being done at every agricultural station in the country, and at every advanced school and university. . . . If I should hear of something anywhere this side of Hell that I thought would do us any good, I might want you to go there and find out about it; in other words, I don’t want to go backwards.”

William replied with deference, formality, and gratitude: “I realize the value of the opportunity you are giving me to make good and I hope that our future relations will be mutually agreeable and profitable.”

There were hints in this exchange that Fabyan would be difficult to work with. William, cautious by nature, asked about salary. Fabyan responded with a vague, long-winded riff: “I want to get some practical level-headed fellows that will carry themselves, and a community which is asking no favors and yet having the best there is, where people will have to come for what we have.” William asked what he raised on the farm at Riverbank. Fabyan said he raised hell. His analogies were beautiful and bizarre. Writing of his desire to breed a new strain of wheat that would thrive in dry climates and help feed the hungry, Fabyan told William, “Here is a problem that has come up in my mind, that I want you to work on. I want the father of wheat, and I want a wife for him, so that the child will grow in an arid country.” He added that “one of my wealthy Jewish friends” was also working on the problem, but “if I can beat him to it, he will foot the bills, and be damned glad to. . . . This may seem impractical and improbable, but I have seen impractical and improbable things accomplished.”

Eventually Fabyan offered to pay William a hundred dollars a month, on top of free lodging, and William accepted. It happened to be an old yearning of his to live on a farm, a dream wrapped up in his Jewish identity. As a kid he’d heard stories from his parents of the pogroms in Russia, mob violence against Jews that they barely escaped, and by the time he got to high school he realized that anti-Semitism was spreading in the United States, too. Popular American magazines portrayed Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe as a “Jewish Invasion,” a threat to the jobs of whites, with the Russian Jew said to be especially conniving thanks to his “nervous, restless ambition.” Concerned and wanting to protect themselves, William and some of his high school classmates fell under the spell of the “back-to-the-soil” movement, a homespun brand of Zionism that encouraged Jewish kids in America to resist anti-Semitism by tilling the land, making themselves strong and self-sufficient. William took this idea seriously enough to enroll in some courses at a Michigan agricultural college. When he actually tried farming, he realized that everything about it, from the physical labor to the grit in his clothes, made him miserable.He went to Cornell instead.

Now, at Riverbank, he found himself on a farm again. Of sorts.

Elizebeth had never gone for shy men. But she liked William, and so did her elder sister, Edna, who visited Riverbank to see how Elizebeth was getting along. Edna’s dentist husband had recently died, leaving her a widow, and the dapper geneticist left an impression. She wrote William two flirty letters. Edna informed him that her sister was growing fond—“I think E[lizebeth] cares a very great deal more for you than she lets herself or anybody else believe”—but also implied that perhaps she, Edna, the mature and responsible sister, might make a better mate for William than younger, flakier Elizebeth. Edna wrote to William, “My idea of real love-making is sort of the Lochinvar kind”—Lochinvar, the hero of an old Scottish poem: So faithful in love, and so dauntless in war / There never was knight like the young Lochinvar. “Him riding up furiously, sweeping his bride up before him with one hand and riding away.”

Although Elizebeth found William attractive, she was drawn at first to his way of carrying himself, his scrupulous precision about words and facts and clothes, his modesty—qualities that made him George Fabyan’s opposite. She liked checking in with William after spending hours in the blast zone of Fabyan’s hype cannon. It felt healing, like drinking a glass of cold lemonade after a long walk. And what a mind he had! Talking to most people, Elizebeth felt like she could see the rough carpentry of their thoughts, the joints and tenons that never quite fit, but with William, ideas emerged smooth and whole, as if from a workshop. And he was so playful about it all, unlike Fabyan and Mrs. Gallup. Science to them was about results: defeating gravity, rewriting literary history, finding the secret to eternal life. Huge, epic, shocking, revolutionary ends. William never used such words. He didn’t care about the answers so much as the questions. He enjoyed science because it was an interesting way of being alive.

He had a feel for ciphers thanks to his work with Mrs. Gallup, and also a youthful fascination with Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Gold-Bug.” The plot of the story revolves around a cryptogram whose solution points to a buried treasure chest full of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and gold coins, placed there by a murderer. Poe wrote articles about codes and ciphers, bragging that he could solve any cryptogram and daring readers to stump him, and for decades to come, Americans associated codebreakers with the sunken-cheeked, disreputable figure of Poe. William took a more whimsical approach to ciphers. He liked to blend them with his knowledge of botany to make jokes and works of art. At Riverbank he drew a sketch of a long-stemmed plant with many fine veins in its leaves; although from a distance it looked like an ordinary botanical illustration, closer examination revealed patterns of notches in the roots and leaves and petals that spelled out the words “Bacon” and “Shakespeare” in the biliteral cipher. He captioned the drawing, “CIPHER BACONIS GALLUP,” “A MOST INTERESTING AND PECULIAR PLANT, PROPAGATED AT RIVERBANK RESEARCH LABORATORIES.”

The autumn weeks burned away. The temperature dropped and Elizebeth experienced her first Riverbank winter, a gray duration of pitiless wind that scraped across the plains unbroken and slammed into the estate. The sky threw down a tarp of pale blue light. Your breath crystallized in the air like clouds of cigar smoke, and the cold groped into your lungs. The cottages and labs burned coal all day and the dark gray smoke rose from the chimneys. Elizebeth and William were growing closer. She didn’t know what to call it—more than friends, less than lovers. William would perch in a rocking chair sometimes and she would sit on his lap as he pushed the chair forward and back, his thin arms around her thin waist, the chair creaking in a steady rhythm, neither of them saying much at all.

It took a while for her to get up the courage to share her doubts about Mrs. Gallup’s work; she worried that William would look at her strangely, would think she was wrong and think less of her. But Elizebeth’s mind wouldn’t let it rest, and eventually, she asked what he thought. Wasn’t it strange how Mrs. Gallup could see these things that no one else could see?

To her enormous relief, William said he had been wondering the same. Sometimes a thought floated to the front of his mind, the deepest heresy at Riverbank: There are no hidden messages in Shakespeare.

The idea rang in the air between them like a broken chime. Ugly, dissonant notes. Elizebeth and William exchanged a look. For the first time, but not for the last, each gathered strength from the other, and the notes resolved into a chord: There are no hidden messages in Shakespeare.

What if everyone involved in the Bacon work was crazy, except for the two of them?

CHAPTER 4

He Who Fears Is Half Dead

and then begins step step leap
she continues these leaps
scramble the code scramble uphill scramble eggs
and without premeditation but in full arc if possible
have a good time.

ANNE CARSON

The intercepted and decoded telegram burned its way from hand to hand, from junior diplomat to senior diplomat, first in London and then in Washington, producing involuntary noises of surprise and bulging eyes. It was obvious that the president himself needed to see it. At 11 A.M. on February 27, 1917, the U.S. secretary of state, Robert Lansing, carried a copy of the intercepted telegram to the White House and showed it to Woodrow Wilson. The president read it and grew uncharacteristically angry: “Good Lord!” he said. “Good Lord!”

The telegram had been sent from Germany to Mexico on January 16, traveling by three separate telegraph routes and encoded as a series of number blocks: 130 13042 13401 8501 115 3528 416 17214. The British had intercepted the message, and a small team of civilian codebreakers toiled for a month in a secret office inside Whitehall to scrub away the grime of code and make the plaintext visible. What they saw, to their shock, was nothing less than a conspiracy plot against the United States.

Written by Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, the telegram proposed an alliance between Germany and Mexico: “We intend to begin unrestricted submarine warfare on the first of February. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support, and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you.”

The Zimmermann Telegram, as it came to be known, was indisputable proof of a German plot against America, “clear as a knife in the back and near as next door,” as the historian Barbara Tuchman has put it. Residents of Texas were particularly displeased to learn that the Kaiser was trying to give them to Mexico, but outrage against Germany was general across the States. The telegram sped up history. It pushed America into war with Germany, whether America was ready for war or not.

It was not.

And this is how the telegram changed the destinies of Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman: as American codebreakers, they happened to possess an extraordinarily rare and suddenly indispensable set of skills.

Elizebeth got word in January 1917 that her mother, Sopha, long ill from cancer, was on the verge of death, and Elizebeth should come to Indiana to say goodbye. She packed a bag and rode the train back to Huntington and her childhood home. Her father was there, and her sister, Edna. The two sisters consoled each other as physicians prowled through the old house, murmuring about a growth. Sopha was in a lot of pain and vomited violently. A doctor turned her on her belly and spread iodine across her back. He used cocaine to numb a particular spot and tapped a metal rod into the skin, removing what Elizebeth felt was a horrifying quantity of pinkish fluid.

She had brought some cipher materials with her, hoping to get work done. “My book-bag lies here unopened,” she wrote to William at Riverbank. “I try to make myself work, but I cannot. I sit a moment, then spend the hours pacing back and forth from Mother’s bed, in the vain hope that there is something I can do. It is so awful—Billy Boy—to look on the face of death like that—the beckoning face—Do you know it makes me think a lot about posterity, and responsibility, and all that?” She wasn’t sure what to call William in these letters, or to call herself in relation, so she mostly kept things platonic, signing her letters “yours, Elsbeth,” and thanking William for being “one of the truest friends I’ve ever had,” although she did admit that she missed William’s “rocking,” his comforting way with a rocking chair, and in one letter she slipped in something stronger: “I love you / Elsbeth.”

When Sopha died, in February 1917, Edna stayed behind to arrange the funeral, while Elizebeth returned to Riverbank, seized by a new impatience. She had no desire to spend any more time on the Bacon ciphers. Life was too short to waste on fruitless quests. When she reunited with William, he said he felt the same. They both agreed they had to remove themselves from the project. The question was how.

Confronting Mrs. Gallup seemed a little cruel. She had worked too many years in a single direction to admit her compass was broken. She had treated both of them with kindness. They tried talking to Fabyan instead. On a few occasions the two youngsters buttonholed him and tried to get him to listen. Mrs. Gallup’s theory was unsound, they said. Fabyan’s money might be better spent on other projects. He shouted them down, as they expected. Fabyan said he wasn’t paying them to question the theory, only to persuade the academy that it was correct.

But by now, even if he didn’t want to admit it, a new scheme was diverting Fabyan’s attention from the literary ciphers. Shakespeare, Bacon, Mrs. Gallup, old books, dead men—it paled in urgency to the world of the living.

For months now Fabyan had been advertising his patriotism and his willingness to place Riverbank at the disposal of the flag. He had ordered his groundskeepers to expand the network of model trenches next to the Lodge, and after months of digging by a team of mud-spattered workers the trenches reached a total length of three miles, enough to be useful for the Fox Valley Guards to conduct infantry drills complete with live mortar rounds. And Fabyan had told officials in Washington that if they needed help with codebreaking, Riverbank stood ready to serve.

“Gentlemen,” he wrote to Washington on March 15, 1917, “I offer anything I have to the government, and if you care to have any of your local men call on me, and see the work that is being done, I should be very glad to show it to them.” He described his interest in old ciphers, especially the biliteral cipher of Francis Bacon, and added: “To avoid any possibility of being considered a crank, or a theorist, I respectfully call your attention to the fact that I was the business partner of the late Cornelius N. Bliss, formerly Secretary of the Interior, whom most of the older men in Washington remember with a great deal of respect and admiration.”

Military officials were of course reluctant to give any power or responsibility to a fake colonel in Illinois, but they had little choice but to accept Fabyan’s offer. They were desperate for codebreakers because of the way radio and wireless technology was changing the art of war.

In earlier conflicts, codebreakers had mattered less; fewer military and diplomatic messages were encrypted because the messages were harder to intercept. If you wanted to steal an enemy message, you had to capture a messenger on horseback, or open an envelope at a post office, or install a tap on a telegraph wire. But with radio, all it took to intercept a message was an antenna. The air was suddenly full of messages in Morse code, dots and dashes that registered as audible pings and whines. You could pluck them out of the sky. So to protect their secrets, armies had begun encrypting their wireless messages before sending them over the wireless in Morse.

This simple fact transformed codebreakers from disreputable freaks into potential superheroes, wizards with power over life itself. Now the air was full of encrypted information of enormous tactical significance and the utmost stakes. The routes of ships at sea. Troop movements on the ground. Airplane sightings. Diplomatic negotiations and gossip. Reports of spies. Thousands upon thousands of puzzles zipping through the atmosphere, any one of which, if decrypted, might win or lose a battle, wipe out a regiment, sink a ship. In this new world, a competent codebreaker was suddenly a person of the highest military value—a savior, a warrior, a destroyer of worlds.

And yet, as Elizebeth would later write, “There were possibly three or at most four persons” in the whole United States who knew the slightest thing about codes and ciphers. She was one of them, William another.

The government lacked the capacity to reliably intercept foreign messages, much less break the codes and read them. The CIA didn’t exist in 1917. There was no NSA, and the FBI was a crumb of its future self, a nine-year-old organization known as the Bureau of Investigation, which fielded only three hundred agents, on a total budget of less than half a million dollars. There simply was no intelligence community as we think of it today. The Department of Defense was called the War Department then, which operated the army, and though the War Department did contain an intelligence-gathering section, the Military Intelligence Division (MID), it was tiny and underfunded. On the day Congress declared war, April 6, 1917, the MID employed just seventeen officers. The officer in charge of the MID, Major Ralph van Deman, considered the government’s ignorance of codes and ciphers an “emergency.”

So, in the second week of April, the War Department dispatched an emissary to Riverbank, an army colonel named Joseph Mauborgne, to check out the place and report back on its suitability.

Mauborgne was one of the three or four people in America who knew something about codebreaking. In 1912, while stationed at the Army Signal Corps School in Kansas, a bare-bones airfield and laboratory to probe radio technology, Mauborgne had made history by figuring out how to send a radio signal from a plane to the ground for the first time, and in 1914 he became the first American to break the British army’s field cipher, known as the Playfair Cipher, based on a table of letters arranged in a five-by-five grid.

When Mauborgne arrived at Riverbank, Fabyan greeted him with the usual overwhelming gusto and brought him to the second floor of the laboratory building, declaring with a flourish that the Riverbank Department of Ciphers was open for business. The office appeared busier and more crowded than it had ever been. In anticipation of the army man’s visit, Fabyan had gone out and hired a dozen clerks, stenographers, and translators fluent in German and Spanish, to provide support for Elizebeth and William. Fabyan hoped the two young people would be able to lead the effort, to break codes for the government, while Mrs. Gallup continued her long labors on the Bacon ciphers. Superficially, the office looked like the picture in Fabyan’s imagination, the pitch he had sold to Washington. It looked like a codebreaking agency on the prairie.

There in the new Department of Ciphers, Elizebeth and William introduced themselves to Mauborgne. They clicked with him immediately. He was thirty-six and big—big body, big voice, big brain, with perfectly round, black glasses. He was the only man they had ever seen stand eye to eye with Fabyan and not seem intimidated. Mauborgne liked Elizebeth and William, too. He saw a spark in the pair of young codebreakers. (He would later call them “the two greatest people I have ever known.”) They had little formal training but were bright and eager. Fabyan made him wary—a mess of a man, lunging wildly from promise to promise—but it was undeniable that Riverbank had excellent security from a military standpoint. Aside from the virtue of being in the middle of nowhere, safe from enemy attack, it was protected by the lighthouse, and Fabyan also had the Fox Valley Guards nearby—his own private army. If all else failed and the Germans invaded, Fabyan said he would open the bear and wolf cages in the garden and sic the beasts on the intruders.

On April 11, Mauborgne informed his commanders that Riverbank was ready. He urged the army and also the Justice Department “to take immediate advantage of Colonel Fabyan’s offer to decipher captured messages,” owing to “the mass of data” in his private library of cipher books, the security of his compound, and the quality of his employees, “a force of eight or ten cipher experts who spend their time delving into the works of antiquity, discovering historical facts hidden away.”

After reading Mauborgne’s enthusiastic report, Van Deman of the MID wrote to Fabyan with gratitude, thanking him for “your exceedingly kind and patriotic offer of assistance,” and soon encrypted messages started arriving at Riverbank from Washington. They came in the mail and by telegram, sent by different parts of the government: the War Department, the navy, the Department of State, the Department of Justice. The messages had been intercepted by covert means, mostly from various telegraph and cable offices across the country.

Fabyan had gotten his wish: for the foreseeable future, Riverbank would become ground zero for military codebreaking in America, a de facto government agency. He had drafted Elizebeth and William into the war, assuming they would be able to handle what was coming. But when they looked at the messages, the fresh piles of gobbledygook spilling from the mail sacks onto their desks, they weren’t sure that he was right.

A woman and a man are sitting side by side in a busy room. People come and go and the door opens and closes and there is the sound of typewriter keys smacking ink into pages. Outside the window, hawks fly and cows moo and a bear scratches himself in an iron cage and a parrot sings and a river runs and there are also monkeys in diapers for some reason.

The two people, Elizebeth and William, notice nothing except what is in front of them on a slab of desk. They are looking down at a sheet of paper. All of their intensity is shining down at the paper, a bright beam of desire to understand the text that is typed there.

It looks like nothing. It is clearly not written in the biliteral cipher of Francis Bacon that they are familiar with. It is something else, a new level of mystery. They must understand it. But they don’t know what they are looking at.

BGVKX

TLXWB

SHSFW

KWGRI

KZTZG

RKZFE

YDIWT

KOFOB

GUHGD

SFVRE

UIUQX

HSLDS

OHSRM

HTWKY

VHUIK

BJDUH

VSART

BGVNG

VBAFO

AZOXG

PQPMJ

DRODW

RCNML

MTMXL

SSVAR

A hiss of symbols, a raw block of babble. A cryptogram. Someone wrote and sent it for a purpose, and someone else intercepted it, and now it is here on your desk. These letters contain meaning. How to unlock it without knowing the key?

The basic task of codebreaking might seem impossible if you think about how many different ways a message might be encrypted. Each human language has its own quirks and curiosities. Then, within each language, a cryptographer can choose from among dozens of varieties of locks—codes and ciphers. And each lock will accommodate only one of a vast array of possible keys.

For instance, one of the simplest kinds of ciphers, called a mono-alphabetic substitution cipher, or MASC, swaps out one set of letters for another. Perhaps A=B, B=C, and C=D, or perhaps A=X, B=G, and C=K—or any other map between the 26 letters of the plaintext alphabet and 26 different letters in the ciphertext. A MASC is a very basic method of encrypting a message. But even here, there are 403,291,461,126,605,635,584,000,000 potential alphabets: 403 septillion. A thousand computers, each testing one million alphabets per second, would take more than a billion years to exhaust the possibilities.

And yet anyone who has ever solved a cryptogram on a newspaper puzzle page has conquered the 403 septillion possibilities, because, of course, there are shortcuts, ways of taming the task by grabbing on to certain patterns in the text.

This is the essence of codebreaking, finding patterns, and because it’s such a basic human function, codebreakers have always emerged from unexpected places. They pop up from strange corners. Codebreakers tend to be oddballs, outsiders. The most important trait is not pure math skill but a deeper ability to pay attention. Monks, librarians, linguists, pianists and flutists, diplomats, scribes, postal clerks, astrologers, alchemists, players of games, lotharios, revolutionaries in coffee shops, kings and queens: these are the ones who built the field across the centuries and pushed the boundaries forward, stubborn individuals with a lot of time to sit and think and not give up.

Most were men who did not believe women intellectually or morally capable of breaking codes; some were women who took advantage of this prejudice to steal secrets in the shadows. One of the more cunning and effective codebreakers of the seventeenth century was a Belgian countess named Alexandrine, who upon the death of her husband in 1628 took over the management of an influential post office, the Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis, which routed mail all throughout Europe. The countess had a taste for espionage and transformed the Chamber into a brazen spy organization, employing a team of agents, scribes, forgers, and codebreakers who melted the wax seals of letters, copied their contents, broke any codes, and resealed the letters. This was an early example of what the French would later call a cabinet noir, or black chamber, a secret spy room in a post office. The countess’s male contemporaries were slow to discover her true occupation because they couldn’t imagine that a woman was capable of such deceptions. “What if this countess does not merely open our letters but is also capable of deciphering their contents?” one diplomat wrote in panic to another. “God knows what she is capable of doing to us!”

The two most prominent codebreakers in America when Elizebeth and William started were a married couple, Parker Hitt and Genevieve Hitt. Parker was a tall, dashing Texan with weathered skin, an army infantry commander in his thirties who had gotten interested in cryptology after volunteering to fight in the Spanish-American War and trying his hand with messages intercepted from the Mexican army. His wife, Genevieve, a proper southern girl, had scandalized her family by falling in love with a man they saw as a cowboy. She also studied cryptology, eventually becoming chief of the code operation for the War Department’s Southern Division, based in San Antonio. “This is a man’s size job,” she wrote to her mother-in-law, “but I seem to be getting away with it, and I am going to see it through. . . . I am getting a great deal out of it, discipline, concentration (for it takes concentration, and a lot of it, to do this work, with machines pounding away on every side of you and two or three men talking at once).” Parker supported Genevieve and was proud of her: “Good work, old girl,” he wrote to her in one letter.

Parker was the only American to have written a serious book about cryptology. Aimed at army units with no prior training, Manual for the Solution of Military Ciphers showed how to set up a quick-and-dirty deciphering office in the field with five or six soldiers, some radio equipment to intercept enemy signals, and a day or two of study. Hitt went over the basics of military cryptography and explained, accurately, that the methods of the world’s armies had not changed much in hundreds of years. Just like there are millions of chicken recipes in the world but only several basic methods to cook the bird (roasting, frying, poaching, boiling), there are countless ciphers but only a handful of common types. Then he laid out some basic steps for solving a cryptogram written in cipher. Today a computer could do any of these steps in picoseconds, but in 1917 it all had to be done by hand, with a pencil and paper.

The first step was usually very simple: count the letters in the cryptogram. In English, the most frequently used letter is E, the most frequent two-letter group is TH, and the most frequent three-letter group is THE. So if you count the letters in the ciphertext and the most common letter is B, it might stand for E, and if the most common three-letter group is NXB, it might stand for THE.

You can count other things in a cryptogram, like the total number of vowels and consonants, and how often particular letters or groups of letters appear before or after other letters. All of these counts give hints to the hidden structure. A frequency count can also reveal if the plaintext was written in English, German, French, Spanish, or some other language, because the frequency of letters in a language is like a unique signature. The most common six letters in German, starting with the most common, are E, N, I, R, T, S. In French, E, A, N, R, S, I. In Spanish, E, A, O, R, S, N.

It’s best to do the counting in a systematic way. You might start by drawing a thing called a frequency table. You chop the cryptogram into its component parts and sort them according to the letters by which they’re surrounded. It looks like this:

It’s best to do the counting in a systematic way. You might start by drawing a thing called a frequency table. You chop the cryptogram into its component parts and sort them according to the letters by which they’re surrounded. It looks like this:

 

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

1

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

2

H

I

J

K

L

M

N

3

O

P

Q

R

S

T

U

4

V

W

X

Y

Z

 

 

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